Did you know that giving your time and effort on behalf of someone else can actually improve your mood and overall health? Although it sounds too good to be true, that is the conclusion of a number of studies on a variety of populations from around the world. Scientists are still unraveling the specifics, but there are some intriguing clues documenting the health benefits of volunteering.
First, there are positive physical health effects. Volunteering was associated with reduced mortality risk in a number of studies, especially in persons aged 60 and over, although the benefits appear to hold true for all ages. Simply put, persons who consistently give their time on behalf of others lived longer than those who did not. More surprisingly, the health status of the volunteer didn’t matter. Even if they had a serious medical condition themselves, volunteering provided a protective factor for their own physical wellbeing.
Volunteering was also associated with increased positive emotions and a significantly-improved sense of purpose. It increased access to social and psychological resources which countered negative moods such as depression and anxiety. People who volunteered reported a greater degree of overall happiness, with improved social support and cohesion that benefits both the individual and the community. Finally, volunteering has been shown to improve self-satisfaction and mastery of new skills, both of which reinforce a positive self-image.
These studies also reveal interesting ways to maximize the positive effects of service work. The total number of volunteer hours per week was not as important as consistency and length of service. That is, just one hour a week was more effective at promoting the health and wellness of the volunteer than lots of hours, as long as it was consistent over a period of months or even years. Studies also revealed that there are health benefits even if the service work is informal and privately arranged, such as spending time with a homebound neighbor each week. Volunteer work doesn’t have to be “official” to benefit, just consistent.
In the end, these studies showed that “mattering” was the crucial link between volunteering and wellbeing. By moving beyond our own needs and helping others, we begin to make a difference and “matter” to both our community and ourselves, and we get the bonus of being healthier and happier.
David Fawcett, PhD, LCSW
This article first appeared in Out in the News, Volume 3, Issue 1 (February-March 2010), a publication of the Broward County Health Department, S-Men Campaign for a Safer, Healthier Community.