BOSTON — Whether it’s planting trees or serving food to the homeless, volunteering your time for the greater good makes a difference in the lives of many. As it turns out, doing good deeds also benefits your body, too. A new study out of Harvard shows that people who regularly volunteer enjoy longer, happier, healthier lives.
Of course, the psychological benefits of altruism are nothing new. Various studies have made claims about the health benefits of volunteering; but none have quite the strength of this latest research that includes almost 13,000 participants.
Researchers say that people over 50 years old who volunteer for about two hours weekly have a considerably lower risk of death. They’re also less likely to develop physical impairments and exercise more frequently. All of these benefits naturally lead to a stronger overall well-being versus people who do not volunteer.
“Humans are social creatures by nature. Perhaps this is why our minds and bodies are rewarded when we give to others,” explains lead author Dr. Eric Kim, of the Chan School of Public Health at Harvard University, in a release. “Our results show that volunteerism among older adults doesn’t just strengthen communities, but enriches our own lives by strengthening our bonds to others, helping us feel a sense of purpose and well-being, and protecting us from feelings of loneliness, depression, and hopelessness. Regular altruistic activity reduces our risk of death even though our study didn’t show any direct impact on a wide array of chronic conditions.”
When You Give, You Also Receive
The researchers randomly selected nearly 13,000 participants a national study conducted between 2010-2016. Participants were split into two groups and tracked for four years each. The research team used health data, face-to-face interviews and surveys to evaluate the effects of volunteering on 34 specific physical and mental health outcomes.
Interestingly, the analyses reveal that volunteering does not seem to be linked to improvements in numerous chronic health conditions. In particular, the authors noted no change for sufferers of heart disease, diabetes, stroke, hypertension, cancer, lung disease, cognitive impairment, arthritis, chronic pain or obesity.
Further research is needed to elucidate some of the findings of this study and to clarify why some results of this study differ from those of previous research. For the time being, researchers feel comfortable encouraging older adults to spend more time volunteering.
You Can Still Volunteer Safely During COVID-19 Outbreak
The authors say the coronavirus lockdown could be the perfect time to start getting involved with your community, as long as you follow social distancing guidelines, of course. “Now might be a particular moment in history when society needs your service the most,” says Dr. Kim. “If you are able to do so while abiding by health guidelines, you not only can help to heal and repair the world, but you can help yourself as well.”
“When the COVID-19 crisis finally subsides,” he concludes, “we have a chance to create policies and civic structures that enable more giving in society. Some cities were already pioneering this idea before the pandemic and quarantine, and I hope we have the willingness and resolve to do so in a post-COVID-19 society as well.”
The study is published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.