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The Caring Cure: Can Helping Others Help Yourself?

New study: Volunteering is positively linked with mental and physical health

Most of us know that if we eat our fruit and veggies, exercise often, and avoid smoking, we have a better chance of living longer and healthier lives. But your doctor may not have told you that regularly giving to others should perhaps be added to that healthy checklist. A new paper led by Dr. Suzanne Richards at the University of Exeter Medical School reviews 40 studies from the past 20 years on the link between volunteering and health. The article, which is freely available in the open access journal BMC Public Health, finds that volunteering is associated with lower depression, increased well-being, and a 22% reduction in the later risk of dying.

Most of the studies on this topic so far compare active volunteers to non-volunteers, following them over time to see how they are doing a few years later. This is a very common method used to understand health effects of various behaviors, like smoking, taking multivitamins, or eating blueberries. But the problem with this method is that people who volunteer are “healthier and wealthier” than people who don’t. So it’s not surprising that a few years later they are still looking pretty good. Experimental studies that randomly assign some people to volunteer and others to do something else (or to go on a waiting list for a few months) are much better. At least in these studies we know that everyone started off the same. In the new article, the authors reviewed a few such studies, but they were cautious about the general conclusions that could be made from them. More experimental studies are needed. But if you really think about it, by definition it’s a bit odd for studies to force a group of people to “volunteer.” So maybe that’s why these studies are uncommon.

Researchers in the Interdisciplinary Program for Empathy and Altruism Research (iPEARlab.org), which I direct, are doing some detective work trying to figure out the two big mysteries that remain:

First, why should volunteering be good for people’s health? Here are my three best guesses:

1)      Any activity is good activity. Volunteering means getting off the couch and out of the house, so it makes us stronger and more physically fit. More physically fit people tend to deal with stress better, which can help them live longer lives.

2)      Social connections can be good for us. We are hard-wired for face-to-face contact that includes lots of touch, eye contact, and smiles. Such interactions release a hormone called oxytocin, which helps us to bond and care for others, and also helps us to handle stress better. Volunteering is a good way to meet others, make friends, and bond over common beliefs and goals.

3)      It just feels good. Volunteering can give us a deep sense of happiness, which is also associated with longer and healthier lives.

Next, who is most likely to benefit from volunteering? Here are some research-based answers:

1)      Our previous research finds that volunteering only has health benefits for people who do it in order to help others, rather than to help themselves. So please pick a cause you care about and do it with your heart.

2)      Our new research is finding that volunteering is better for religious people, perhaps because by volunteering they are affirming their most cherished beliefs to help and serve others.

3)      Past research finds that volunteering can actually be harmful for people who volunteer too much. How much is too much? So far, we don’t have solid answers on that question. But if your volunteering job is starting to become more of a burden than a blessing it’s time to scale back.

If you want to live forever, I can’t help you with that. But if you want to live a longer, happier, and healthier life, take all the usual precautions that your doctor recommends, and then … get out there and share your time with those who need it. That’s the caring cure. 

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This article was originally published on EverydayHealth.com. Copyright, 2013, Everyday Health. See: http://www.everydayhealth.com/depression/how-volunteering-can-lessen-depression-and-extend-your-life.aspx