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The Psychology of Volunteering

The benefits of volunteering extend far beyond a warm heart and sense of accomplishment. Over the past two decades, an evolving body of research has established a strong correlation between volunteering and better mental and physical health. In addition to lower stress and stronger social connections, volunteerism may also contribute to longer lifespans.

In 1999, research conducted by psychologists Mark Snyder and E. Gil Clary suggests that there are six reasons why people volunteer:

  • to demonstrate personal values
  • to drive self-development and personal growth
  • to strengthen social ties
  • to learn more about a particular issue or field
  • to gain career-related experience
  • to help absolve guilt or address personal problems

Volunteer activities provide charities and organizations with much-needed workers while also giving volunteers the opportunity to boost their skill sets and feelings of self-worth. The more people volunteer, the more likely they are to reap the benefits it provides and continue helping in the long term. It’s estimated that about 100 volunteer hours per year are needed to achieve positive outcomes.

What are the health benefits?

The physical movement and altruism of volunteer activities can lead to individual health benefits such as lower stress levels and greater efficiency in everyday tasks. According to studies, volunteers also experience a decreased risk of depression and lower blood pressure, which is a primary risk factor for heart failure, metabolic syndrome, heart attack and stroke.

Research indicates that those who volunteer have longer lifespans than those who don’t. In 2011, The American Psychological Association published research on the topic that used data from the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study, which observed a random sample of 10,317 Wisconsin students for a period of about 54 years following their 1957 high school graduation.

In 2004, participants reported whether they had volunteered in the past ten years and the frequency of their volunteering. They were also asked why they decided to volunteer, a question that elicited both self-centered and altruistic responses. Four years later, researchers determined which respondents were still alive. They concluded that 4.3% of non-volunteers had died, about the same amount as the group that reported self-centered reasons for volunteering. Just 1.6% of altruistic volunteers had died.

Given these observations, the researchers concluded that volunteering contributed to longer lifespans, but only if participants had altruistic values and genuinely wanted to help others or build stronger social connections. Those who were volunteering primarily because of the desire to escape personal troubles or feel better about themselves did not receive the same benefits.

How does age affect this?

“It is reasonable for people to volunteer in part because of benefits to the self; however, our research implies that, ironically, should these benefits to the self become the main motive for volunteering, they may not see those benefits,” says Andrea Fuhrel-Forbis, MA, to the APA (http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2011/09/volunteering-health.aspx).

In considering the effects of volunteering on different age groups, researchers noted that older participants are the most likely to receive greater benefits. This could be because they face higher risk of illness, or because volunteerism provides them with productive and fulfilling activity at a time when their social roles are evolving. These findings are especially relevant, as today’s Baby Boomer generation – born between 1946 and 1964 – is approaching retirement age and will be joining population of volunteers, which is expected to grow in the years to come.

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