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?

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  1. Beth Miller says

    I’m not surprised by the link between volunteering and longevity. Especially for those of “retirement” years. It is especially meaningful to give altruistically of yourself to a cause/ project/ program you believe makes a difference in this world. During the ski season, I “work” the front desk at the Alpine Center of the National Ability Center in Park City two days a week. This volunteer work is challenging and rewarding. Experiences serving persons with disabilities have enriched my life. They also have provided insight into the lives of not only of the person with a disability, but also their families. Our largest clientele are Wounded Warriors and their families. Rather ironic, as a pacifist…good to be part of their healing and journey toward wholeness.