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Benefits of Volunteering

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Some of the best times in life occur when you volunteer – not because you have to but because you want to.  One of my first experiences volunteering was as a teen.  I worked at a camp for developmentally disabled young adults.  My job was to be a friend and basically play in the pool (tough job!).  As is the case with so many volunteer activities, I gained and learned more from the campers than they gained or learned from me.  The work while fun was exhausting but I distinctly remember coming home every night with a smile on my face and a great camper story to share.   The mental health benefits of volunteering are well-researched and documented.  Research now confirms that volunteering is good for your physical health as well.  

Volunteering for altruistic reasons, that is for the benefit of others not out of obligation or to pad your resume, has significant social and mental health benefits.  According to a report from the Corporation for National and Community Service, “volunteer activities can strengthen the social ties that protect individuals from isolation during difficult times, while the experience of helping others leads to a sense of greater self-worth and trust.”  Several studies agree in their findings that volunteering is correlated with lower rates of depression, a greater sense of purpose, and higher self-esteem.  In addition, a 2000 East Carolina Study found that older volunteers, in particular, experience greater life satisfaction and greater positive changes in their perceived health as a result of volunteer activities.  Not only does perceived health improve, studies now show that actual physical health is positively correlated with volunteering.

The Assets and Health Dynamics Among the Oldest Old Study found a correlation between volunteering and better health and lower mortality rates.  Those who volunteered for at least 100 hours per year were two-thirds as likely as non-volunteers to report bad health, and also one-third as likely to die.  Besides longevity, volunteering seems to help with chronic pain and blood pressure. A 2002 study, found those who suffered from chronic pain experienced declines in their pain intensity and decreased levels of disability and depression when they began to serve as peer volunteers for others also suffering from chronic pain. Furthermore, a 2013 study from Carnegie Mellon University, found adults over age 50 who volunteered on a regular basis were less likely to develop high blood pressure than non-volunteers.  It is important to note that all these studies are correlational.  We cannot say volunteering is directly responsible for any of these benefits; however, study after study finds a positive relationship between volunteering and good health.  There can be no doubt that volunteering is a win-win for society – good for the volunteers and good for the recipients.

One interesting finding is that there appears to be a benefit threshold.  Two studies based on data collected from the Assets and Health Dynamics Among the Oldest Old report found that the volunteering threshold is 100 hours per year, or about two hours per week.  According to the authors, “typically, no or little relationship was found between volunteering and positive health outcomes when an individual engaged in less than 100 hours per year.  There did not appear to be any additional benefits to health as the number of volunteer hours increased beyond 100 hours.”  The Americans’ Changing Lives survey found that a more moderate level of volunteering was necessary for health benefits.  Those individuals who volunteered at least 40 hours per year, as well as those who volunteered with just one organization or group, had the lowest risk of mortality.  The moral of the story, volunteer one to two hours per week for an organization or group you care about in order to reap the most health benefits.  

The possibilities are endless. Volunteer opportunities include nursing homes, hospitals, daycares, food pantries, civic and church organizations, animal shelters, education/literacy programs, gardening, housekeeping, home maintenance/repair, telephone calling, crafts, and more.  There is something for everyone.  Consider volunteering.  You can’t beat the pay – smiles, satisfaction, and better health!

Lorraine Wichtowski is a community health educator at Noyes Health in Dansville.  If you have questions or suggestions for future articles she can be reached at lwichtowski@noyeshealth.org or 585-335-4327.  

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