Importance of Contribution

Importance of Contribution

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.


There are multiple longitudinal studies that have assessed the correlation between volunteerism and mortality. And they all agree: if you want to live longer, help others.


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.


Reduce Pain

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.


Create relationships

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.


Overall Health

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.


Importance of Spirituality

Importance of Spirituality

Let’s start with the word itself. Spirituality. What does it mean?

If you don’t rely on a particular religion to outline some spiritual practices, you may not think of yourself as spiritual at all. I offer these definitions from a variety of sources:

Spirituality is an inner belief system that a person relies on for strength and comfort
     – Psychologist Mark Holder

Spirituality is better thought of as a boundary-less dimension of human experience.
     – Psychologist Larry Culliford

Spirituality arises from your connection with yourself and with others, the development of your personal value system, and your search for meaning in life.
     – From the Mayo Clinic

Spirituality is concerned with a person‟s awareness of the existence and experience of inner feelings and beliefs, which give purpose, meaning and value to life.
– Dr. John Fisher

And perhaps the most thorough definition is from psychiatrist Harold Koenig:

“Spirituality is distinguished from all other things—humanism, values, morals, and mental health—by its connection to that which is sacred, the transcendent. The transcendent is that which is outside of the self, and yet also within the self…

Spirituality is intimately connected to the supernatural, the mystical, and to organized religion, although also extends beyond organized religion (and begins before it). Spirituality includes both a search for the transcendent and the discovery of the transcendent and so involves traveling along the path that leads from nonconsideration to questioning…”

If you have ever asked yourself what you believe and do not believe, what meaning there can be to this mortal coil, or what happens after death, I humbly suggest that you are a spiritual person.


Why is spirituality important to one’s health and overall quality of life?

The most comprehensive research I found is here. In his review of 601 peer-reviewed research papers, Dr. Harold Koenig found positive correlations between spirituality and these aspects of life:

If a pharmaceutical company offered such benefits in a pill, we would all be racing to our doctors for a prescription. Changing our behavior requires more effort than swallowing a pill, though. So it may seem difficult to make spiritual practices part of your life. But it only takes a thought – a single thought – to experience spirituality.

If you are still reading and haven’t run off to the nearest monastery for your own private retreat or clicked back over to the action page, then you, my friend, are a real skeptic. And I love that about you. Everything past this point is just for you.


Skills are Mandatory. Belief is Optional.

Like all the categories in the Quality of Life Initiative, spirituality is a skill that can be practiced and strengthened. The Royal College of Psychiatrists outlines the following skills to “help us to become more creative, patient, persistent, honest, kind, compassionate, wise, calm, hopeful and joyful:”

  • being honest – and able to see yourself as others see you
  • being able to stay focused in the present, to be alert, unhurried and attentive
  • being able to rest, relax and create a still, peaceful state of mind
  • developing a deeper sense of empathy for others
  • finding the capacity for forgiveness
  • being able to be with someone who is suffering, while still being hopeful
  • learning better judgement, for example about when to speak or act, and  when to remain silent or do nothing
  • learning how to give without feeling drained
  • being able to grieve and let go

That a quick how-to list. Below you will find more information on why developing the skill of spirituality improves your quality of life. 


Social Health

What does “social health” mean? 

You can probably guess that social health refers to the social connections you make in life. These are important, even if you are naturally introverted and are quite happy at home with a book and a drink. As evidenced here, social connections increase the flow of information related to disease screenings and maintenance of health. Religious/spiritual congregations can also provide opportunities for practicing altruism through volunteerism. Indeed, simply by gathering together with a group of people who are practicing similar spiritual practices, you encourage the development of basic human virtues such as honesty, courage, dependability, generosity, forgiveness, self-discipline, patience, and humility.


Sex is natural. Sex is good.

Sex is the way of nature.  Just check out these tomatillo plants putting all their business out there in the open for every flying pollinator to see.  It’s veggie porn! tomatillo sexual organs

Even Trappist monk Thomas Merton knows that sexual expression should be more than physical: “The act of sexual love should by its very nature by joyous, unconstrained, alive, leisurely, inventive and full of special delight, which the lovers have learned by experience to create for one another.”

And you’ve probably heard of the Kama Sutra.

Beyond the seemingly impossible physical positions represented in the book, sexuality is a relentless drive to creation and is universal. It should be no surprise that couples who identify as spiritual or religious often report a happy and healthy sex life.


Mental Health

Beyond the psychobabble that fills the positivity movement, psychologists are beginning to welcome spiritually-integrated approaches to treatment. For example, “forgiveness programs to help divorced people come to terms with bitterness and anger; programs to help survivors of sexual abuse deal with their spiritual struggles; treatments for women with eating disorders that draw on their spiritual resources; and programs that help drug abusers re-connect to their higher selves.”

And while some argue that religion brings comfort to the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable, there is a growing body of research that examines the link between spirituality (from regular attendance and involvement in a specific congregation to mindfulness practices) and mental health. 

In this most extensive review of literature, Koenig examines religious and spiritual practices as they relate to these mental health issues:

Substance Abuse
Psychotic Disorders
Bipolar Disorder


For years, mental health professionals assumed that religious and spiritual practices would worsen depressive symptoms due to some religions’ emphasis on sin, eliciting responses of guilt in some people. The research does not bear out that assumption. In the 444 studies reviewed, there was a greater than 60% incidence of spiritual practices providing relief of depressive symptoms. In 30 clinical trials, 63% of the studies “found that religious/spiritual interventions produced better outcomes than either standard treatment or control groups.”  (emphasis added) With these types of findings, isn’t it worth trying to find some spiritual practices that you can do regularly?


It stands to reason that if religious and spiritual practices can reverse depressive symptoms, they can also provide some relief to those who have suicidal ideations or who have attempted suicide. Indeed, the results of 141 studies show 75-80% reduction in completed suicide, attempted suicide, and suicidal thoughts. That is remarkably high. 


You won’t be surprised to learn that the research concerning anxiety shows similar results to that examining depression and suicide. Longitudinal studies found a 47% reduction in anxiety over time. In randomized clinical trials, “69% reported that a religious/spiritual intervention reduced anxiety more than a standard intervention or control condition.” 

Substance Abuse

The use of spiritual practices to help people recover from substance abuse is a cornerstone of Twelve Step Programs like Alcoholics Anonymous. The Second Step reads:

                   Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. 

The research supports this expression. Of 278 studies, a whopping 86% demonstrated a rise in spiritual practices correlated to a decrease in substance dependency. To me personally, the best news was that many studies (roughly 96) had a population of late adolescents or young adults, for many a time of experimentation with drugs or alcohol. If interventions can be found before dependency takes hold, perhaps some people can be spared interruptions to their education, careers, family life, and physical health. Koenig concludes, “Thus, the protective effects of [religious/spiritual practices] on substance abuse may have influences on health across the lifespan.

Psychotic Disorders

Chronic psychotic disorders, such as schizophrenia, are difficult to manage and have devastating effects on families, and possibly society. However, even with a small pool of 43 studies, 33% reported that as spiritual practices increase, psychotic episodes may decrease. Many mental health professionals posit that ruminating on oneself only contributes to psychiatric disturbances. Hence, deliberately turning your attention to a higher power, G-d, the universe, or simply life outside of yourself could provide powerful relief. I believe that any intervention that can ease the suffering of someone diagnosed with schizophrenia is an intervention worth trying, repeating, fine-tuning, and sharing. 

Bipolar Disorder

The goal of many pharmaceutical-based interventions is to reduce symptoms. A reduction in manic episodes, depressive episodes, or suicidal thoughts is considered effective treatment in many cases. However, people diagnosed with bipolar disorder repeatedly report having a low quality of life, an area not generally not addressed in pharmacotherapy. To be clear, it is vital that people with this disease are kept free from the harm that can be caused in either the manic or the depressive episode. However, we humans all want to feel that we are leading full lives, and this is an area where spirituality can help. More recent research examines this gap and finds that “religious resources (beliefs, practices, cognitive framework, and participation in religious services or volunteer work) in order to adapt to challenging circumstances” had a positive influence on quality of life over the two-year period. 


The Pursuit of Happiness

Are there those among us who wouldn’t claim to want happiness in our lives? Certainly we know people who take actions that will clearly make them unhappy. They are not aiming for unhappiness, I’m sure, and would still claim that happiness is a goal in life.

So how do you get there? This review showed that 82% of studies showed an increase in feelings of well-being or happiness in those who identified as having spiritual practices. Which leads me to conclude that if you want more happiness in your life, copy the masters. What are they doing that you can apply to your life? Obviously, if the national bestseller on happiness is written by a man who spent two years living alone in the Himalayas and you are a single mom living in an apartment complex in a large city, you can’t copy that person. What can you copy? Is there a belief system that you want to read more about? Is there a gathering place (synagogue, mosque, church, ashram,etc.) that you have been curious about and want to see what their get-togethers look like?


All In the Family

Family life has many challenges. Even Jesus’ parents left him behind after a family road trip for Passover! Spirituality is a deeply personal aspect of our lives, and our practices and beliefs will likely shift throughout our lives. We cannot force someone to believe what we believe, but we can model our own practices for our families. And the emerging field of relational spirituality indicates that we can rely on spiritual behaviors to enrich, strengthen, or transform our intimate relationships.

Many parents who attend religious services also raise their children in the same faith. This research stood out to me because of the differentiation between “religious” and “spiritual.” Most notably “children who feel that their lives have meaning and value and who develop deep, quality relationships – both measures of spirituality – are happier. It would appear, however, that their religious practices have little effect on their happiness.” The researchers used a couple of measures of spirituality: 

feeling that our lives have meaning, and
having quality relationships with others.

These measures represent a combination of the personal (our own meaning of life) with the inter-personal (relationship with others). So to see children aged 8-12 years report feelings of happiness in finding this balance between the individual and the communal brings me hope. 


Coping Mechanisms

Given that spiritual practices or beliefs can improve mental health and feelings of happiness, it is no surprise that in a review of 39 studies, people identified their spirituality as a means of coping in these situations: general medical illness, chronic pain, kidney disease, diabetes, pulmonary disease, cancer, blood disorders, heart/cardiovascular diseases, dental or vision problems, neurological disorders, HIV/AIDS, systemic lupus erythematosus, irritable bowel syndrome, musculoskeletal disease, caregiver burden,  psychiatric illness, bereavement, end-of-life issues, overall stress, natural disasters, war or acts of terrorism, and miscellaneous adverse life situations.

To cope means to deal with effectively. What does coping look like? Perhaps it means that you don’t scream at your aging parent because you are burnt out with your caregiving responsibilities. Maybe you work with your neighbors after a flood instead of feeling victimized by life. There is no one way to cope with a difficult diagnosis of disease, yet we all seem to know when those closest to us are not dealing well.


Live Long and Prosper

If you can effectively deal with stress, avoid substance abuse problems, ward off depression and anxiety, have a happy sex life, it makes sense that you can also live a longer life with spiritual and religious beliefs. Specifically, “those who attend religious services regularly may have an increased survival rate equivalent to the effects of cholesterol lowering drugs or exercise-based cardiac rehabilitation after myocardial infarction on survival.”

Did you catch that? Attending religious services regularly could be equal to drugs or exercise in terms of survival rates after a heart attack. Remember, this is a controlled study. Religious services aren’t for everyone, which is why it is important to note that in many of the studies cited here, researchers equated individual spiritual practices that were done consistently with regular attendance at a religious congregation. 


I have presented this research in hopes of encouraging you. Many people like to know that whatever ways they are trying to improve their lives are scientifically proven to demonstrate improvements. Perhaps you have tried some practices in the past that you feel ready to return to, or perhaps you are inspired to try something new. If you need a few suggestions, start here. And if you have practices that you think would be helpful to others, I hope you will share them.