This post brushes up against the philosophical question, “Is there such a thing as a truly altruistic act?” Despite my many philosophy courses in undergraduate studies, I will try to limit myself here to the scientific research most enlightening to the conversation.
“When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.”
– John Muir
According to the Corporation for National and Community Service, in their report “The Health Benefits of Volunteering: A Review of Recent Research, 2007” there is a strong relationship between volunteering and health. Specifically, volunteers:
Have lower mortality rates
Have greater functional ability, and
Have lower rates of depression, especially late in life
Across the research cited below, several themes appear. Volunteering has the potential to offer these benefits:
- Fight mental illness
- Lower blood pressure
- Reduce heart disease
- Reduce risk of Alzheimer’s Disease
- Reduce pain
- Create relationships
- Increase physical activity
- Improve general health
- Give one a sense of purpose
Of course, if you suffer from a chronic illness, the act of getting out of bed to perform your daily routines can be a great effort and the thought of trying to find a way or time to volunteer may be overwhelming. While it is undoubtedly the case that better health leads to continued volunteering, these studies demonstrate that volunteering also leads to improved physical and mental health. Thus they are part of a self-reinforcing cycle.
One word about the literature: Most of the literature reviewed focuses on older adults. It seems that we must age into the opportunity to give our time freely. While teenagers volunteer with school or church, they are often “voluntold.” The same holds true for countless parents volunteering on the PTA, the Little League team, and many other children’s activities that we may truly enjoy, but that may not be top on our list of places to volunteer. Those adults without children may have corporate volunteer opportunities forced upon them. The way I interpret these findings that primarily apply to older adults is, “why wait?”
What benefits can you reap today from contributing to your community, your country, your world?
Volunteer to live longer
Volunteering for as little as 40 hours per year has been shown to increase lifespan. Isn’t that good news? You can volunteer to live longer, but you don’t have to spend your entire life volunteering. Researchers at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor found that their results held true across gender, age, race, and socioeconomic status. This study, along with many other reviewed and not cited here, attributes such findings to volunteers having multiple roles in life, strong self-identity, a reason to get out of the house, and a strong social network that comes from volunteering.
Meanwhile, researchers at Cornell University studied women over a 30-year period (1956-1986) and their various roles in life, from mothers to volunteers, to professionals. They also found a relationship between volunteering and living longer, but their scope of study was focused more narrowly on functional abilities. They studied how volunteers versus non-volunteers were able to go up and down stairs unaided, go out to visit friends, and other daily functions. Volunteers scored higher in functional ability over the 30-year period. Again, these benefits were seen regardless of socioeconomic status.
If you read the Importance of Spirituality post, you may recall that having spiritual beliefs or practices to lean on can help you live longer. Interestingly enough, volunteerism is shown to reduce mortality even more than religious beliefs or practices. In fact, this study indicates that “volunteering to help others in two or more organizations offered a persistent protective effect against mortality in an elderly population.”
Volunteering was more likely to cheat death than physical mobility, exercising four times weekly, and attending weekly religious services. One of the only better things you can do for yourself to live a long life is to not smoke.
Keep your sanity
If you’re going to be living a long life, you want your wits about you, right? Crazy fun is one thing. Dementia is another. Physician Susan J Noonan, MD fought her own battle with depression and used volunteerism to help her efforts.
“The first thing to know is that when you volunteer you commit to make yourself available to a person or an organization for a period of time, say 2 or 4 hours per week, on a regular, ongoing basis. You do it in small steps, not all at once. You become accountable to others for showing up, on time and ready to function at some moderate level. They will depend on you for that. It’s a big step. This was good for my depression… “
Having this commitment to others was a strong motivator. Apparently, it was even stronger than the motivation to go to work. The motivation for volunteerism is different than the motivation to go to work. While they both seem obligatory, the internal sense of control that comes from volunteering – showing up completely of your own free will – can drive people into action.
Dr. Noonan continues,
“You come to feel needed and appreciated for what you do for others. When you volunteer your time you have to pull yourself together, get off of the couch and out of the house.”
And perhaps the most revealing sentiment to me was this:
“Action precedes motivation. Get started and the interest and motivation will follow.”
As anyone who has lived with depression knows, putting one foot in front of the other is sometimes the only thing that you can do. It is okay to “just go through the motions.” It is okay to not feel exuberant about the task at hand. Let the action itself stand on its own and let the mental benefits seep in.
Reduce Risk of Alzheimer’s
This study in Baltimore was very targeted, both in terms of study participants and volunteer activity. But the implications are huge and worthy of the attention of public health officials. The program studied older adults partnering with local elementary school children in a literacy program. The adults were volunteering to help children with literacy and memory skills. Participants were African-American, low-education, low-income women over age 50, who were at high risk of cognitive impairment. After reading with elementary school children in their neighborhood, the results showed improvements in brain function in the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain important for planning and organizing one’s day. The improvements seen in brain imaging were matched with reported behavioral improvements. One study participant said,
“It removed the cobwebs from my brain.”
Now THAT’s a great testimony. But why did this volunteer program help? According to the researchers, “Complex environments impose cognitive challenges through the diversity of stimuli and the number of decisions required. As a result, they exercise organizational, inhibitory, and working memory skills, all components of executive function.” In other words, our brains need new activities and new challenges, no matter how seemingly small, to function at their best.
The researchers also conclude, “Socially engaging cognitive activities” in adults may enhance “the proliferation of new brain cells and promote brain repair in animal models.”
Lower Blood Pressure
This little bullet point keeps showing up in the importance of these categories. Remarkable. In the Importance of Spirituality, I discussed briefly the dangers of high blood pressure. How does volunteerism help keep blood pressure low?
This four-year study found that regular volunteering lowered blood pressure in participants over age 50. And not by an insignificant amount! Those that volunteered roughly 4 hours per week were 40% less likely to develop hypertension over the four-year follow-up. This result held steady even after controlling for chronic illnesses that were measured at baseline. This was not a case of those who were healthy continued to be healthy. Regardless of the health of the participants at onset, the 40% yardstick held true.
In explaining the results, the researchers state:
“Volunteerism may also function to alter the psychological or biological stress response among older adults. Performing volunteer work may give individuals perspective on their own life struggles, promoting more positive coping strategies in the face of potentially stressful situations.”
Reduce Heart Disease
Kind of goes hand-in-hand with lowering blood pressure, but this study found some other important data. Volunteers are more likely to use preventative health resources, like cholesterol checks and flu shots. An annual flu shot appears to to lower the risk of heart attack and stroke by about one-third of the following year.
Meanwhile, at Duke University, researchers are tapping into the wealth of benefits that former cardiac rehabilitation patients can offer current patients. People who had suffered heart attacks and completed rehabilitation were followed during their time as volunteers to patients and their families that were currently undergoing treatment at the cardiac rehabilitation unit. These volunteers offered the important services of orienting patients to what was happening and what services they were about to receive, providing emotional support, helping to find local lodging and community services (from churches to restaurants). The volunteers from this study had better overall health outcomes than did cardiac patients who did not volunteer.
Improving your brain, your blood pressure, and your heart are of course very important markers for living well. But for me they fall into the category of blind faith. It is difficult for me to FEEL my heart functionally more optimally. Obviously, I can measure my blood pressure, but not without special equipment. Trying to stay motivated using these invisible-to-the-lay-person measures is not easy for me personally. So let’s talk about how contributing to your community can make you feel better today.
Something we all want, right? To live pain-free? Millions of people suffer with chronic pain; pain with no known cause or effective treatment, making this population ideal for studying pain. Researchers provided a group of volunteers with cognitive behavioral management techniques and communication skills training at the onset of this study. The volunteers were then followed for almost one year to assess their pain levels. Similar to the cardiac patients at Duke University, these volunteers were paired with others with chronic pain.
Proving the adage that friends can divide your sorrows, volunteers reported declines in the intensity of their pain levels, lower levels of depression, and greater self-efficacy. Sense of purpose, connections with others, and improved coping mechanisms were also cited as benefits. Volunteers were actively learning more about their conditions so they could be well-informed in helping their peers. At the end of the study, all participants reported the experience to bring them multiple benefits with no downsides.
Despite what social media applications would have us believe, we are hard-wired for in-person contact, which includes touch, eye contact, and smiles. Such daily interactions provide a boost of oxytocin, the original love drug. Oxytocin helps us bond with others and care for others while also helping reduce cortisol, a key stress hormone.
Because you get to decide where and how often you volunteer, contributing to your community is a powerful way to meet others, make new friends, and share common beliefs and goals. These connections can become more important when you face an ordeal, either individually or together with your neighbors. An existing social support network can direct you to necessary services or offer a shoulder to cry on.
Peer volunteering seems to provide a particularly strong bond. Have you ever told someone about a difficult situation you are facing and heard the response, “I know exactly how you feel” and then listen to their completely unrelated, perhaps even trivial, recounting of an event? While such people have good intentions, these researchers state, “Honest empathy is a powerful balm.”
Get your movement in
How cool is it that the Indiana University has an Interdisciplinary Program for Empathy and Altruism Research? Director Sara Konrath, PhD has studied the science of giving extensively. One of the benefits repeatedly noted in the research is physical movement. At the very least, you have to get off the couch and get out of the house, which will make us stronger and more physically fit. The increase in physical activity (even if you are not volunteering with Habitat for Humanity) may directly improve cardiovascular function, or may provide an indirect benefit of delaying functional limitations. In other words, it can get you strong or keep you strong.
Obviously, right? Here I’m referring not to the specific conditions mentioned earlier, but to use of medical services. This Harvard School of Public Health study found that over a two year period, volunteers were more likely to use preventative medical services such as flu shots, mammograms, cholesterol tests, Pap smears, and prostate exams. Most importantly, volunteering was positively correlated with a reduction in hospital stays. Volunteers spent 38% fewer nights in hospitals than their peers.
“I’ve been looking at this for years now, and I haven’t found a study where volunteering didn’t affect health positively in some way.”
– Dr. Eric Kim, Harvard School of Public Health
Sense of Purpose
Have you ever had a day when you simply did want to leave the bed? Not due to illness, but due to lack of reason? Whether it was a midlife crisis, existential angst, overwhelming grief, or just a crap day, sometimes it is hard to find a reason to get up. As reported in Journal of Gerontology, volunteering can give people, especially older adults, a sense of purpose. A friend of mine in her early 70’s recently told me that she is having the time of her life now that she is coming out of the fog of grief over her deceased husband. In her words, “I am no longer anyone’s daughter. I’m not a caretaker. I don’t have to mother my grown children everyday. I’m not a working professional. I am just me. I get to do whatever I want!” She is reveling in her new freedom and is enjoying finding what it is that she wants to do now that she isn’t obligated to do anything.