Tuesday, May 17, 2016

The benefits of volunteerism

For some people volunteerism might seem to be a total waste of time. The time that volunteers spend on helping others, some would rather use to either earn money or for their own pleasures. However, it is not true that we don’t get any profits from acting altruistically. It is now a well-established, research-based knowledge, that volunteerism brings good effects not only to our minds, but also to our bodies.

Firstly, let’s talk about the obvious benefits of volunteering, namely – mental health and emotion-related profits. Studies have shown, that volunteerism is responsible for the feeling of social connectedness, helps fight a feeling of loneliness and even depression. It increases self-confidence and gives a sense of purpose in life. It can protect a person from isolation and be a source of a great life satisfaction. Volunteers themselves report higher levels of happiness, life-satisfaction, self-esteem, a sense of control over their life, and improved physical health.

Some people might find it surprising that volunteerism was also found to be connected with physical health. Those who volunteer when they are younger are less like likely to come down with illnesses when they are older, which makes volunteering a good way to prevent poor health in the future. Studies show also that people suffering from chronic illnesses receive higher benefits from their medical treatment when at the same time they are volunteering. One of the most recent longitudinal studies showed that people over 50 years of age who were also volunteers, were less likely to develop high blood pressure than people who weren’t volunteering (Sneed & Cohen, 2013). However, in this case it can’t be proven that there wasn’t another factor responsible for these results (volunteers were controlled for age, sex, race, education, baseline blood pressure and major chronic illnesses, but they also might have been doing other things lowering blood pressure, like eating healthier than non-volunteers). The authors’ guess is that this connection is caused by increased physical activity and stress reduction, which result from volunteering (ibid.). There is some evidence, that older volunteers can benefit more from volunteering, probably because it increases their physical and social activity and serves as a purpose in life in a hard time of changes of social roles. Another thing is that most studies show that positive health outcomes occur only when a considerable amount of time is devoted to volunteering (at least 100 hours per year). However, too much volunteering might become a burden that could lead to worse health outcomes. It has also been shown, that health profits can be derived from volunteering only as long as it is being done for altruistic reasons, and not for personal gain (Konrath, Fuhrel-Forbis, Lou, Brown, 2012).

There are also other dimensions in which volunteering serves us. It can have a great impact on our skills, making us more desirable on the labour market. Depending on the type of activity we take up, we can gain many new abilities or improve old ones. Particular job skills as well as wholesome career experience can make us stand out during our next job search – it might be that one thing that will distinguish us from other candidates and therefore win us a job. On top of that, volunteering can widen our social circles and improve our social skills. It is also an easy, entertaining way to explore our passions and interests.

A thorough review of 40 research papers conducted in 2013 gave solid evidence for connection of volunteerism with longer lifespan (by 22%), lower levels of depression, higher life satisfaction and enhanced well-being among volunteers in comparison to non-volunteers (Jenkinson et al., 2013). The conclusion is very simple and worth remembering: it’s good to be good.

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

Jenkinson, C.E., Dickens, A.P., Jones, K., Thompson-Coon, J., Taylor, R.S., Rogers, M., Bambra, C.L., Lang, I., Richards, S.H. (2013). Is volunteering a public health intervention? A systematic review and meta-analysis of the health and survival of volunteers, BMC Public Health.

Konrath, S., Fuhrel-Forbis, A., Lou, A., Brown, S. (2012). Motives for volunteering are associated with mortality risk in older adults, Health Psychology, 31(1), 87-96.

Sneed, R. S., Cohen, S. (2013).  A prospective study of volunteerism and hypertension risk in older adults, Psychology and Aging,  28(2), 578-586.


By Magda Gucman

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