Volunteering: Can it help you live longer?

This entry is part 1 of 5 in the series Volunteering
This image of 2 hands forming a heart is one of the 100-plus Images of America in our new 'United America' online gallery. Click the photo to check it out.

This image of 2 hands forming a heart is one of the 100-plus Images of America in our new ‘United America’ online gallery. Click the photo to check it out.

Do you volunteer?

About 30% of employed Americans volunteer, according to the most recent figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The figure is a bit lower for unemployed persons, about 24%. Volunteering benefits the recipient, of course, but does it help or hurt the volunteer? After all, helping others takes time, energy, and resources from the helper.

But, could the volunteer also benefit? This week, in an author interview with ReadTheSpirit magazine, the famous peace activist Johann Christoph Arnold argues that serving others contributes to a happier life, especially as we age.

We know that getting help from others—called social support—can be vital for the recipient’s health and well-being.

But new research turns the helping equation on its head, finding that giving help to others decreases the risk of death—for the helper. The results were published last year in the American Journal of Public Health. I knew one of the researchers, Stephanie Brown, when she was running the study while at the University of Michigan. (She’s now on the faculty at Stony Brook University.) Here’s how the researchers figured out the cause-and-effect link between giving help and living longer.

The team collected data from 846 older adults living in the Detroit metropolitan area during a five-year period. At the beginning of the study, the researchers conducted baseline interviews to determine what stressful events, if any, each participant experienced in the previous year. A stressful event could be divorce, job loss, health issues, sickness or death of a loved one, and so on. The researchers asked each participant whether he or she had given any tangible help or assistance to friends or family members. They also collected the usual demographic and employment data.

Then they waited. For five years.

During those years, the team scanned newspaper obituaries and monthly death records compiled by the state, looking for reports of the deaths of any of their 846 participants. What they learned is eye opening.

Other studies show that stressful events are associated with a higher risk of death. This was true for the participants in this study as well. But: It was true only for participants who experienced a stressful event and did not help anyone. In contrast, participants who had helped others and experienced a stressful event did not have a higher risk of mortality. In short, being helpful to others buffers the negative effects of stress.

So what’s the prescription? In the authors’ words, “At-risk populations are frequently advised to seek support from their social networks. A less common message, but one that perhaps deserves more prominence, is for them to support others as well.”

Take it from a life-long pastoral counselor and writer like Johann Christoph Arnold—or take it from researchers who have studied the issue: If you help others … you help yourself.

Are you surprised to learn of the link between volunteering and longevity?

If you volunteer, how has it affected your sense of well-being?

If you don’t volunteer, does the UofM study motivate you to help others?

Volunteering: Is once enough to increase your happiness?

This entry is part 2 of 5 in the series Volunteering
Four Hands Overlaying

This image of four hands is one of the 100-plus Images of America in our new ‘United America’ online gallery. Click the photo to check it out.

Does volunteering make you happy?

Our everyday experience says it does, and a host of scientific studies concur: volunteering one’s time, energy, and resources increases your sense of well-being and happiness.

But is volunteering once enough? Two or three times? Or, do you have to do it on a regular basis?

An answer can be found in an article that appeared last year in the Journal of Economic Psychology. In it, European economists Martin Binder and Andreas Freytag dug into an enormous amount of data from the British Household Panel Survey. This survey has tracked thousands of adults since 1991.

The economists define volunteering as “any activity in which time is given freely to benefit another person, group, or organization.” What they found is revealing: Volunteering once is not enough. Rather, “regular sustained volunteering increases subjective well-being.”

Even more: Frequent volunteering is not subject to “hedonic adaptation.” This cumbersome phrase means that each person has a certain happiness level to which he or she returns after events that increase or decrease happiness. This doesn’t appear to be the case for volunteering. “On the contrary” write the researchers, “the sustained and frequent volunteering effort seems to be subject to increasing returns in terms of happiness.”

In other words, the more you volunteer and make it a part of your life, the happier you will be over time.

Does volunteering make you happier?

Are you surprised to learn that frequent and sustain volunteering is the secret to well-being and happiness?

Volunteering: Religious volunteers…in prison?

This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series Volunteering
Religious Accommodation in Pew survey results

WHAT KINDS OF RELIGIOUS RESOURCES ARE PERMITTED FOR INMATES? While “religious accommodation” is a right in America, there is no uniform set of religious rules. Pew asked chaplains to answer these questions. (To read the entire Pew report, click on the graphic.)

We usually don’t think of volunteering in a prison context, but volunteers are often used in state prisons to meet the religious and spiritual needs of prisoners. Religious volunteers supplement the work of prison chaplains, leading worship services, providing religious education classes, running prayer or meditation groups, and more.

Do you know any religious volunteers who serve the prison population?

To learn about the role of religious volunteers, the Pew Research Center surveyed prison chaplains in all 50 states. These chaplains reported that they have too few—and too many—religious volunteers. They have more Protestant religious volunteers than they need, and too few Muslim, Wiccan, and Native American religious volunteers.

How well do religious volunteers perform? Overall, almost all prison chaplains say that volunteers are excellent or very good at leading worship services or religious rites, at leading religious education classes, at leading prayer or meditation groups, and mentoring prison inmates.

Volunteers don’t do as good a job at providing services to the families and children of prison inmates. This is especially true when it comes to mentoring the children of inmates. They do a somewhat better job when it comes to helping inmates’ families by giving food, clothing, or holiday gifts.

There are no official records of the religious affiliations of the incarcerated population, so the prison chaplains were asked to describe the religious composition of their prison populations. Pew researchers note that these estimates are impressionistic at best, but it is interesting to note that the religiously or spiritually unaffiliated appear to be less frequent among prisoners than the general population.

Did you know that religious volunteers regularly supplement the work of prison chaplains?

Are you, or someone you know, a religious volunteer who works in prisons?

If so, what has the experience been like?

Volunteering: Which state leads the volunteer rankings?

This entry is part 4 of 5 in the series Volunteering
CLICK THE MAP to visit the Volunteering America website and learn a lot more about volunteerism in all the 50 states.

CLICK THE MAP to visit the Volunteering America website and learn a lot more about volunteerism in all the 50 states.

Almost 65 million Americans volunteered in 2012, contributing 7.9 billion hours of service valued at $175 billion. But these figures are not evenly distributed across the nation.

Which state leads the volunteer rankings?
Which one comes in dead last?

The Corporation for National & Community Service collects data each year about volunteering across America. Their latest report covers volunteering in 2012; figures for volunteering in 2013 will be out soon (though I don’t expect to see big differences between 2012 and 2013).

Which state tops the rankings? It’s the Beehive State, better known as Utah.

Almost 44% of Utahans volunteer, taking the #1 spot in the rankings. Utah also has the highest volunteer retention rate, the highest Baby Boomer volunteer rate, the highest young adult volunteer rate, the highest college student volunteer rate, the highest veterans volunteer rate, the highest parents volunteer rate, and the highest Millennial and Gen X volunteer rates. The only measures that don’t earn them the top spot are their older adult volunteer rate (these Utahans are #3) and teenage volunteer rates (#7).

Which state comes in last place? Overall, it’s Louisiana, with about 20% of Louisianans volunteering in 2012. The volunteer rates for young adults, Millennials, and teenagers are the lowest in the nation.

South Carolina places last for volunteer retention rates, while Nevada takes last place for rates of volunteerism for older adults, Gen X, and parents. New Jersey takes last place for older adult volunteers. West Virginia takes the bottom spot for veterans who volunteer.

Want to know where your state—or town or city—rank? Click the map to visit Volunteering America’s website.

Are you surprised to know that Utah leads the nation in volunteering?

What do you make of where your state ranks?

Volunteering: Would you do it in your pajamas?

This entry is part 5 of 5 in the series Volunteering

Many Americans volunteer their time, knowledge, and resources to aid others. We usually think of volunteering as work done “out there”—in the community, schools, hospitals, prisons, churches, and other places.

But have you ever thought of doing volunteer work at home in your pajamas?

As we’ll see today, there’s a movement afoot that lets you do just that. Volunteering is our focus this week, and we’ve considered how helping others can extend your life and make you happier. We’ve discussed religious volunteers in prison, and the wide variation in rates of volunteering across the 50 states.

Help from Home website

INTRIGUED BY ‘HELP FROM HOME’? Click on this image from the group’s website to learn more.

Volunteering is a time-honored activity, but today technology lets us volunteer in new ways. It’s called “micro-volunteering.” Micro-volunteering, defined by Wikipedia, is “a task done by a volunteer, or a team of volunteers, without payment, either online via an internet-connected device, including smartphones, or offline in small increments of time, usually to benefit a nonprofit organization, charitable organization, or non-governmental organization.”

Help From Home is an example. Their tagline is “Change the World in Just Your Pyjamas.” This site allows you to volunteer “in bite sized chunks, from your own home, on demand and on your own terms.” Their opportunities include a host of “do good actions,” “green actions,” and “advocacy actions.”

Another example is the online volunteering service hosted by the United Nations. Development organizations around the world post volunteering opportunities and individuals select opportunities where they can help. If both parties agree, then the online volunteer provides the needed service, such as translation, writing, design, research, IT development, and more.

Have you heard of micro-volunteering?  

Does micro-volunteering appeal to you?  

Would you volunteer more often if you could do it in your pajamas?