Volunteering May Be Good For Your Health
Could volunteering be good for your health? A new report that draws from the results of more than 30 studies on the topic says yes. According to the report, older people who volunteer enjoy longer lives, higher functional ability, and lower rates of depression and heart disease.
"Volunteering can give you a new sense of purpose and keep you active. If people volunteer regularly it helps contribute to the maintenance of a strong social network," says Robert Grimm, director of the research and policy development office at the Corporation for National & Community Service, a government organization that promotes community service and published the report. This seems especially true in an American culture in which older people often find themselves feeling isolated and aloneproven risk factors for depression and other health problems. Two of the studies indicate that there is a threshold of about 100 hours per year of volunteer activity, or about two hours per week, required to achieve a health benefit.
The sense of social connectedness that volunteering can produce is critical, agrees Stephen Post, director of the Institute for Research on Unlimited Love, a Case Western Reserve University research group that focuses on the scientific study of altruism, compassion, and service. "The helping impulse is very fundamental. When it is locked off we do not flourish," he says. Though Post acknowledges that the scientific study of altruism is new and that researchers have yet to tease out exactly how helping others could improve health, he notes that the stress hormones associated with depression, such as cortisol and epinephrine, have been shown to impair the immune system. By contrast, oxytocin, which seems to cause a "helper's high," may offer protective benefits. "Causality is such a complicated matter. Could we have the cart before the horse?" asks Post, referring to the reality that having good health in the first place allows higher rates of volunteering. But many of the studieswhich control for this factsuggest that volunteering provides an additional benefit.
Want to give altruism a try? According to Post, you don't have to do anything dramatic. "It's not as if people have to look for a voluntary association. It starts with a shift from thinking, 'I am the center of the world,' to a willingness to act toward others in helpful ways." If organizations are more your style, you can visit www.volunteer.gov to search for volunteer opportunities by ZIP code, says Grimm.