Volunteering to help others can not only make a difference in someone else’s life. It can also be good for your health. A new study published by the American Psychological Association journal Health Psychology has found that, when people volunteer to help others, they may live longer. Researchers found that volunteering for altruistic reasons or a “desire for social connections” led to people living longer lives, while those who volunteered for “personal satisfaction” had the same mortality rate as those who did not volunteer. “Going outside of ourselves,” it’s suggested, is actually good for us.
The researchers drew on data from the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study, which has tracked a random sample of 10,317 Wisconsin high school students from their high school graduation in 1957 until the present. The sample is 51.6 percent female, and the average age of those studied was 69.16 years in 2008, notes Science Daily:
In 2004, respondents reported whether they had volunteered within the past 10 years and how regularly. They reported their reasons for volunteering (or the reasons they would volunteer, for those who had not done so) by answering 10 questions. Some motives were more oriented toward others (e.g., “I feel it is important to help others,” or “Volunteering is an important activity to the people I know best”) and some that were more self-oriented (e.g., “Volunteering is a good escape from my own troubles,” or “Volunteering makes me feel better about myself”).
The researchers also considered the respondents’ physical health, socioeconomic status, marital status, health risk factors (i.e., smoking, body mass index and alcohol use), mental health and social support. Much of this information was collected in 1992, 12 years before the respondents were asked about their volunteering experience.
After determining how many respondents were still alive after four years, the researchers found that 4.3 percent (2,384) of those who did not volunteer were deceased, a figure similar to the proportion of deceased volunteers — 4 percent — who described their motives for volunteering as more self-oriented. But, after four years, only 1.6 percent of those volunteers whose motivations were to help others were deceased. Researchers also found that “respondents who listed social connection or altruistic values as their predominant motive were more likely to be alive compared with non-volunteers.”
Says Andrea Fuhrel-Forbis, MA, co-author of the study:
“It is reasonable for people to volunteer in part because of benefits to the self; however, our research implies that, ironically, should these benefits to the self become the main motive for volunteering, they may not see those benefits.”
Those who volunteer for the so to speak “right reasons” — seeking to help and assist others — are “buffered from potential stressors associated with volunteering, such as time constraints and lack of pay,” says lead author, Sara Konrath, PhD, of the University of Michigan. Regardless of whatever stress they may feel about volunteering, the opportunity to help others mitigates and even outweighs all else.
Certainly it’s intriguing to know that volunteering can have benefits to your health. But the study’s finding that those benefits only occur if you are volunteering with a focus on truly helping others may occasion some rethinking about community service and service learning, especially if these are “required” in educational curricula or other programs. It’s good to do good for others, but perhaps — in regard to community service requirements, for instance — we need to make sure that students and participants truly understand why they are doing what they are doing. Can they articulate their motivations beyond a vague sense of “helping others”? Do they genuinely understand what altruism is and what it means to be a “person for others” not because they have to, but because they wish to?
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