The recent spate of natural disasters from wildfires and tropical storms has cast a light on the incredible impact volunteers and giving have on helping people in need.
Volunteering and giving changes lives. Your outreach and charitable contributions are priceless in value, purpose – and too, to the well-being for those in your community and our nation. . .and for you. Aside from being considered the secret weapon of successful, happy people – reaching out in compassion to help others has positive health benefits. In fact studies show that people who volunteer lead longer, healthier lives. Some public-health experts believe the time has come for doctors to recommend it alongside quality sleep, diet and exercise.
Recently I reviewed a fascinating series of studies out of Harvard School of Public Health on the fight against the disease that is estimated to kill one of every four people you know and how most scientists studying cardiovascular epidemiology are focusing on the usual suspects like cholesterol, obesity, and cardiac structure. And for good reason! However, today, we are seeing more research being done on the powerful benefits from your relationships and purpose in life. How do they affect health, how is purpose gained and lost, and how can it be weaponized to keep people alive and well? And volunteering and giving to a cause is connected to both, your relationships and purpose. I read a great statement in Forbes on this body of research that aptly underscored, “Volunteering has always been viewed as good for your soul. Now it turns out that it’s also good for your health and your career.”
Volunteering is powerful – Not Only to the Receiver but to the Giver
When we reach out to others or take up a cause (with our time, talent, money or other resources) we often discover how impactful and necessary our actions are — and we gain a sense of “really” making a difference. And, too, focusing outside ourselves is powerful, it implies “otherness.” Most of the context of our day-to-day lives is embedded within relationships of others. The number and quality of those relationships strongly influences our health.
Research has consistently shown that volunteering increases the effects on six measures of well-being: happiness, life satisfaction, self-esteem, mastery, depression, and physical health.
What are some physical and mental health benefits of volunteering?
Increases longevity (volunteering can help us live longer): In one review article, researchers gathered information from 40 different studies and found that it can decrease the risk of premature death by 22 percent! This is equivalent to the increase in lifespan that is seen when someone quits smoking!!
Touching Hearts & Minds: Researchers have measured people’s blood pressure before and after performing an act of kindness and then again before and after spending money on themselves. Findings showed that those who performed a good deed had lower blood pressure after; whereas, the group that spent money on themselves, did not show a reduction in blood pressure. While the reasons are not entirely clear, it is believed that altruistic acts decrease stress; increase levels of the hormone oxytocin (which drops blood pressure); and in some instances, is a catalyst for physical activity (e.g., fundraising walks, runs).
Another research report conducted by a Washington D.C.-based corporation for National and Community Service recently revealed that charitable work could literally make the heart grow stronger. It has been found that individuals with coronary artery disease who participate in volunteer activities after suffering a heart attack report a reduction in despair and depression, and that, in turn, drives down mortality and adds years to your life.
And facts are that those who reach out in support of a cause or volunteer have fewer incidents of heart disease in the first place.
Mental Health: Doing for others, fosters feelings of connection and attachments (to the people you are helping and other volunteers), life satisfaction, and positive attitudes. These are all associated with increases in “feel good” hormones, in particular serotonin which protects against depression. In fact, today, the most widely prescribed anti-depressants are those that elevate serotonin levels! Additionally, it helps to divert attention from our worries and can help alleviate anxiety.
And helping others is a great way to be happier. According to a study by researchers from the London School of Economics, it was found that weekly volunteers had a hike in happiness that was comparable to earning an income of $75,000 to $100,000 versus $20,000.
Reduces Risk of Alzheimer’s Dementia: It has been found (study from University of Calgary), that retirees who volunteered in their community at least one hour per week on a consistent basis were 2.4 times less likely to develop dementia five years later. Our brain is like a muscle, and there is a saying “use it or lose it.” Volunteering is a great way to stay socially and mentally active and maintain our brain’s function.
Pain Relief: Involvement with an outreach can help to suppress physical pain by releasing endorphins—our body’s natural pain reliever. In one study, when chronic-pain sufferers volunteered to lead discussion groups for pain sufferers or make weekly calls to check in on patients, their own pain levels decreased.
Who benefits from volunteering?
The physical and mental benefits of volunteering is seen across all generations and includes greater life satisfaction and better perceived health. In a controlled trial at Washington University in St. Louis, older adults who began tutoring children demonstrated improvements in stamina, memory, and flexibility, as well as decreased levels of depression.
And in another study, when tenth-graders began volunteering at an after-school program for children, the high schoolers lost weight, reported better sleep and had improved cholesterol profiles compared to their non-volunteering peers. However, the research to date, the effects are most pronounced among older adults. One reason for this is that they have left the workforce and have more time.
Additionally, the level of social integration impacts how much you may benefit – at any age. Those who had fewer social networks, benefit the most. It is believed that the number of social roles that an individual has can provide meaning and purpose to his or her life, while protecting him or her from isolation in difficult periods.
Reaching Out to Help: Facts are you don’t need to devote huge chunks of time or resources to make a difference – or reap health benefits. No matter your reason for volunteering or giving, good comes out of your dedication to efforts. And as you follow your heart, take time to reflect and do your research so you can better understand the process (and efforts) of becoming involved:
- Identify your goals: What causes are important to you? Do you want to volunteer in your community, meet people who are different than you, try something new and challenging, see a new place, or experience a type of work we may want to do as a full-time job.
- Determine if you prefer to work independently, behind the scenes, or with others (children, adults, animals). Additionally, figure out how much time you are willing to commit.
- Identify your skills: Consider incorporating a hobby into your generosity. For example, knitters can make and donate scarves, hats, or other items; gardeners can help a neighbor or school plant flowers or vegetables; animal lovers can help walk an elderly or sick neighbor’s dog or volunteer at an animal hospital or shelter; and those who love children can give their time at a local school or mentoring or after-school program.
The recent images from events our nation (and the world) has experienced this year of neighbor- helping-neighbor and people-helping-strangers, powerfully communicates the soul of healing in the outpouring of giving in times of need. We play vital roles in helping people and it is through volunteer efforts we can provide invaluable assistance. I thank (and salute) each of you, for every outreach in lending a helping hand you have given. And too, while I know it is not the motivator, I wanted you to know, it is positively powerful to your health and wellbeing. From my heart to yours – we venture on knowing that volunteering help is a year-round project that is especially important during the holidays, as needs are increased – Enjoy!!
Dr. Nina Radcliff is dedicated to her profession, her patients and her community, at large. She is passionate about sharing truths for healthy, balanced living as well as wise preventive health measures.
She completed medical school and residency training at UCLA and has served on the medical faculty at The University of Pennsylvania. She is a Board Certified Anesthesiologist. Author of more than 200 textbook chapters, research articles, medical opinions and reviews; she is often called upon by media to speak on medical, fitness, nutrition, and healthy lifestyle topics impacting our lives, today.