The Health Benefits of Volunteering

After the tragedies that occurred at yesterday’s Boston Marathon, millions of people are looking for ways to help. For anyone who needs some extra incentive, Greatist explains why volunteering can actually benefit our health and happiness, too.
The Health Benefits of Volunteering

December has come and gone, and with it the jingle of Salvation Army stations on the sidewalk. But the holiday season isn’t the only time for do-gooders to rejoice. All over the country (and the globe), there are plenty of ways to dedicate time and effort to improving someone else’s life. The great news? Pitching in is a double whammy: While volunteering helps others, it turns out those who give can also benefit.

Helpers’ High — The Need-to-Know

It’s no surprise that lending a hand makes us feel good — after all, a smile on someone else’s face can be contagious Dynamic spread of happiness in a large social network: longitudinal analysis over 20 years in the Framingham heart study. Fowler, J.H., Christakis, N.A. Department of Political Science, University of California, San Diego, CA, USA. BMJ 2008 Dec 4;337:a2338.. Yet studies suggest volunteering provides more than just emotional benefits; it can make us healthier, and even tack on some extra birthdays Effect of volunteering on risk factors for cardiovascular disease in adolescens: a randomized controlled trial. Schreier, H.M., Schonert-Reichl, K.A., Chen, E. JAMA Pediatrics 2013 Apr 1;167(4):327-32. Health benefits of volunteering in the Wisconsin longitudinal study. Piliavin, J.A., Siegl, E. Department of Sociology, University of Wisconsin, Madison, WI. Journal of Health & Social Behavior, 2007 Dec;48(4):450-64..

Volunteering can also be a mental pick-me-up, since it helps reduce anxiety and depression in some people Volunteering and depression: the role of psychological and social resources in different age groups. Musick, M.A, Wilson, J. The University of Texas at Austin, Population Research Center, Austin, TX. Social Science & Medicine, 2003 Jan;56(2):259-69.. (Plus, it’s a better solution than drowning sorrows in a six-pack.) And altruism — unselfish acts of kindness — can also spark a smile. The key is to expect nothing in return; one study found people who volunteered for selfless reasons and to create valuable relationships decreased their risk of mortality. On the other hand, those who volunteered to feel good (or show off to the boss!) didn’t experience the same benefits. Other recent research suggests those who benefit most from volunteering have a positive view of other people Volunteering Predicts Health Among Those Who Value Others: Two National Studies. Poulin, M.J. Health Psychology 2013 Apr 8. Epub ahead of print..

Embrace the Do-Gooder — Your Action Plan

While studies suggest the benefits of volunteering are more significant among the elderly, there’s a reason to start helping out before our AARP subscription starts Differential benefits of volunteering across the life course. Van Wiligen, M. Department of Sociology, East Carolina University, Greenville, North Carolina. The Journals of Gerontology, Series B2000 Sep;55(5):S308-18.. Research shows consistently volunteering over time can lead to improved well-being and health Health benefits of volunteering in the Wisconsin longitudinal study. Piliavin, J.A., Siegl, E. Department of Sociology, University of Wisconsin, Madison, WI. Journal of Health & Social Behavior, 2007 Dec;48(4):450-64.. Plus, getting out of the house and on our feet keeps us active. Try dancing with senior citizens, or dive in the pool with youngin’s at the YMCA.

Looks like Justin may be right: what goes around does come back around. Just remember that the reason for volunteering, not just simply doing it, matters too. So leave obligation behind and volunteer if there’s a genuine desire — it’s a win-win scenario for all involved! 

What are your healthy reasons for volunteering? Tell us in the comments below!

This article originally posted December 2011. Updated April 2013 by Shana Lebowitz.

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