Research Demonstrates that Volunteering Leads to Better Health

volunteer-group

Excerpts taken from the Office of Research and Policy Development,
Corporation for National and Community Service. Find link to full material at http://www.nationalservice.gov/pdf/07_0506_hbr.pdf

Corporation for National and Community Service, Office of Research and Policy
Development. The Health Benefits of Volunteering: A Review of Recent Research, Washington, DC 2007.

Introduction

Volunteering has long been a common ethic in the United States, with people each year giving their time without any expectation of compensation. While these volunteer activities may be performed with the core intention of helping others, there is also a common wisdom that those who give of themselves also receive. Researchers have attempted to measure the benefits that volunteers receive, including the positive feeling referred to as “helper’s high,” increased trust in others, and increased social and political participation. Over the past two decades we have seen a growing body of research that indicates volunteering provides individual health benefits in addition to social benefits. This research has established a strong relationship between volunteering and health: those who volunteer have lower mortality rates, greater functional ability, and lower rates of depression later in life than those who do not volunteer. Comparisons of the health benefits of volunteering for different age groups have also shown that older volunteers are the most likely to receive greater benefits from volunteering, whether because they are more likely to face higher incidence of illness or because volunteering provides them with physical and social activity and a sense of purpose at a time when their social roles are changing. Some of these findings also indicate that volunteers who devote a “considerable” amount of time to volunteer activities (about 100 hours per year) are most likely to exhibit positive health outcomes.

Volunteering and Physical Well-being

It is the case that physical and mental health can be both a benefit of and a barrier to volunteering–that is, while volunteering may bring benefits to an individual’s well-being, poor health may limit an individual’s ability to engage in volunteer activities. A study of data from the Americans’ Changing Lives survey found that those who volunteered in 1986 reported higher levels of happiness, life-satisfaction, self-esteem, a sense of control over life, and physical health, as well as lower levels of depression, in 1989. Similarly, those
in 1986 who reported higher levels of happiness, life-satisfaction, self-esteem, a sense of control over life, and physical health, as well as lower levels of depression, were more likely to volunteer in 1989. (Thoits and Hewitt, 2001). Functional ability includes the ability to do the following without help: go out to a movie, attend church or a meeting, or visit friends; walk up and down stairs; walk half a mile; do heavy work around the house.
The study also found that membership in voluntary associations, as distinct from volunteer activities, had a significant positive effect on all three of the study’s health indicators (longevity/duration of good health, functional ability, and subjective health appraisal). However, membership and volunteering, while correlated, were not confounding factors.
Evidence indicates that those who volunteer at an earlier stage are less likely to suffer from ill health later in life, thereby offering up the possibility that the best way to prevent poor health in the future, which could be a barrier to volunteering, is to volunteer.

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