It's one of the first lessons we learn as children -- "sharing means caring." We might not understand why we have to share at first, especially when there are younger siblings involved, but as we grow into adulthood, sharing becomes an essential part of your social and career success.
So does it come as a surprise to learn that research now proves that sharing your time with others for a good cause can improve your overall happiness and mental well-being? It turns out that Baby Boomers give more total dollars to charities than any other generation. According to Forbes, Boomers are responsible for 34 percent of all charitable donations, which amounts to nearly $61.9 billion every year.
And according to the data collected by Volunteering In America, Boomers spent about 3.6 million hours volunteering for organizations or causes they are passionate about.
These generous Boomers seem to have tapped into volunteerism at an opportune time; two new studies have recently confirmed that there are significant health benefits to giving back.
UnitedHealth Group commissioned a national survey of 3,351 adults and found that the overwhelming majority of participants reported feeling mentally and physically healthier after a volunteer experience.
- 76 percent of people who volunteered in the last twelve months said that volunteering has made them feel healthier
- 94 percent of people who volunteered in the last twelve months said that volunteering improved their mood
- 78 percent of them said that volunteering lowered their stress levels
- 96 percent reported that volunteering enriched their sense of purpose in life
- 80 percent of them feel like they have control over their health
- About a quarter of them reported that their volunteer work has helped them manage a chronic illness by keeping them active and taking their minds off of their own problems
- Volunteers have better personal scores than non-volunteers on nine well-established measures of emotional wellbeing including personal independence, capacity for rich interpersonal relationships and overall satisfaction with life.
- Volunteering also improved their mood and self-esteem
For those of us who have spent time giving back to the community or helping further a cause we believe in, you might recognize many of the above findings to be correct. It doesn't seem far-fetched to think that helping others can provide you with a sense of connection, pride, and perspective. But did you know that it can also help you live longer?
Researchers at the University of Exeter Medical School in the south of England analyzed data from 40 published studies and found evidence that volunteers had a 20 percent lower risk of death than their peers who do not volunteer. The study also found that volunteers had lower levels of depression, increased life satisfaction and enhanced well-being.
Dr. Suzanne Richards, who lead the team of researchers at Exeter, said that more testing on this subject is necessary in order to find out whether or not biological, cultural, and social factors are associated with a willingness to volunteer in the first place, as they are often associated with better health.
"The challenge now is to encourage people from more diverse backgrounds to take up volunteering, and then to measure whether improvements arise for them," she said.
Health was "extremely important" to happiness for 73 percent of respondents. People in "good or excellent" health are three times more likely to report being "very" happy. Interestingly, what may matter most is how healthy you think you are: The AARP found that the percentage of people reporting good health is relatively stable over the 35-80 age range, varying only seven percentage points. That's despite the fact that objectively, older people are in fact not as healthy: The number of people who report they are suffering two or more medical conditions increased 400 percent over the 35-80 age range. (People may be comparing their health to their peers who are in worse shape.)
Some 68 percent of respondents called relationships "extremely important" to happiness. Some 72 percent of people who were married or in a relationship called themselves "very happy" or "pretty happy" -- compared to 60 percent of singles. AARP asked respondents to rank the importance of certain activities to happiness, and many of those scoring at the top were relationship-related: 72 percent said "kissing or hugging someone you love"; 72 percent said "watching your children, grandchildren or close relative succeed in what they want to do"; 69 percent said "spending time with your family and friends such as a meal or social gathering'; and 64 percent said "experiencing a special moment with a child." However, relationships did have to be real: "connecting with friends or family on a social media site like Facebook" came in 37th out of 38 activities in contributing to happiness.
Nearly half (47 percent) of respondents said pleasure was "extremely important" to happiness. Among the simple pleasures that were most important to the happiness of people 50 to 80: enjoying natural beauty like a sunset or ocean (64 percent); having someone do something nice for you unexpectedly (56 percent); practicing religious or spiritual faith (50 percent); making progress on personal goals (47%); and being absorbed in a favorite hobby or interest (42 percent).
Four in ten of those surveyed called accomplishment "extremely important" to happiness.
Meaning and engagement were considered "extremely important" to happiness among 38 and 37 percent of respondents, respectively.
Some 31 percent of respondents said money was "extremely important" to happiness. Money was slightly more important to people who earned $25,000 or less. As psychologist and Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman has noted, beyond a household income of $75,000, experienced well-being no longer increases, although people's judgment of how satisfied they are with their lives does continue to increase. At the same time, severe poverty amplifies life's misfortunes, such as illness or divorce. The AARP study found similar results: Income and happiness were positively correlated; when comparing the percentage of those "Very Happy" by income ranges, the slope increases up to the $75,000 mark, then continued to rise even more dramatically. Asked how they would spend $100 on something to increase happiness, most respondents said they would spend it on their family or going out to dinner. This correlates with findings that show buying experiences makes people happier than buying things.
People who feel they are in control of their happiness report that they are 2.5 times happier than those who believe happiness is out of their control. A sense of control is linked to higher income, higher education, good health and not experiencing a major life event in the past year. This finding also mirrors decades of research suggesting autonomy -- the feeling that your actions are self-chosen and self-endorsed -- is a core psychological need. Studies have found people who lack a sense of control -- prisoners, nursing home residents, people living under totalitarian governments -- suffer lower morale and poor health, according to David Myers, a professor at Hope College in Michigan and author of "The Pursuit of Happiness." Interestingly, a sense of control over one's happiness rises with age -- with 69 percent of people age 75 to 80 feeling they have control over their happiness, versus about half of people age 40 to 54. It may be that with the wisdom of the years, people recognize that happiness is a choice.
Spending time with a pet can be a substantial way to contribute to one's happiness, the survey found, especially for older women: 81 percent of women age 66 to 80 who own pets said spending time with them contributes "a lot" to personal happiness. It was also important to two-thirds of singles.
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