August 23, 2013
Volunteer! It May Be Good For Your Health
Brett Smith for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online
Volunteering at your local soup kitchen can give you a warm, fuzzy feeling inside and help out those in need, but new research shows that acts of charity can also be highly beneficial to a person’s heath.
A large systematic research review recently published in the journal BMC Public Health from British scientists has found a connection between volunteering and both longevity and mental well-being.
For the review, scientists culled data from several trials and longitudinal studies, and found evidence of an approximately 20 percent reduction in mortality among volunteers compared to non-volunteers. Volunteers also reported less depression and greater life satisfaction. The researchers noted that these findings have yet to be studied in clinical trials.
"Our systematic review shows that volunteering is associated with improvements in mental health, but more work is needed to establish whether volunteering is actually the cause," said study leader Suzanne Richards, from the University of Exeter Medical School in the United Kingdom. "It is still unclear whether biological and cultural factors and social resources that are often associated with better health and survival are also associated with a willingness to volunteer in the first place.”
According to study researchers, volunteer rates are approximately 22 percent in Europe, 36 percent in Australia and 27 percent in the US. Volunteers commonly mention 'giving something back’ to a community or supporting an organization that has supported them as reasons for donating their time and energy. Some people volunteer as a way to gain valuable work experience or make social connections.
While previous studies have noted volunteering’s supposed health benefits, they have not been based on a comparative review of evidence. The new study examined 40 papers which reported data from nine experimental trials and 16 cohort studies.
The researchers were not able to establish a cause-and-effect relationship. They speculated that the physical nature of most volunteer programs could explain any physical benefit. However, explaining mental health benefits is more difficult, researchers said.
In the report, the scientists said that volunteers who don’t find the experience rewarding may not be gaining any mental health benefits. They also said over-volunteering could strain an individual – causing additional and unnecessary stress.
“The challenge now is to encourage people from more diverse backgrounds to take up volunteering, and then to measure whether improvements arise for them,” Richards said.
President Barack Obama has regularly championed volunteer service, as did his predecessors. Most recently, the president called for a National Day of Service to coincide with the observance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day and his own second inauguration.
As part of a campaign to promote the day of volunteer service, Obama recalled his own participation in President John F. Kennedy’s similar call to service.
“We began to see a real improvement in people's lives,” he wrote. “And I came to realize I wasn't just helping people, I was receiving something in return, because through service I found a community that embraced me, citizenship that was meaningful and the direction that I had been seeking. I discovered how my own improbable story fit into the larger story of America.”