We make a living by what we do, but we make a life by what we give. - Winston Churchill
One of the research findings I like to present in a positive psychology lecture is that people who do regular volunteer work are healthier, psychologically and physically, than those who do not, even when the usual suspect risk factors for poor health are controlled (e.g., Brown, Nesse, Vinokur, & Smith, 2003). It is good to do good, I intone, sometimes adding that the research jury is out on whether those on the receiving end of volunteer work benefit. But it is clear, so I say, that giving is healthier than receiving, and we are all in a position to help others.
So I have said, until I read the results of a new study by Sara Konrath and her colleagues that clarify past research on the benefits of volunteer work (Konrath, Fuhrel-Forbis, Lou, & Brown, 2011). Someone's motives matter.
People do volunteer work for all sorts of reasons. They may want to get out of the house or to be more active. If they are students, they may be fulfilling a service requirement for a course, or they may bulking up their resumes with ostensibly good deeds as they prepare for law school applications.
And some people volunteer because they actually want to help others.
Guess who benefits from doing volunteer work? According to a recently reported longitudinal study of Wisconsin residents, those who did regular volunteer work for other-oriented (social) motives lived longer than those who did volunteer work for self-oriented (individual) motives. The study followed thousands of individuals over a four-year period and took into account baseline health and vigor.
Someone's motives for volunteering were assessed by what he or she reported when the research began, and perhaps we can quibble that the research participants may not have known their "real" motives. But I am inclined to take the data at face value and observe, whatever the methodological quibbles might be, that being able to predict from responses to simple survey questions whether someone is alive or dead four years down the road is pretty impressive.
And by the way, those who did volunteer work for self-oriented reasons did not differ in mortality risk from those who did no volunteer work at all. They may well have satisfied their own individual motives, and having a self-oriented reason for doing volunteer work is not to be confused with being selfish. But in terms of reduced mortality, volunteer work is beneficial only if one's heart is in the right place, which is to say a social place.
Positive psychologists like to give advice to people about how to be happier and healthier, and "do volunteer work" is a standard bit of advice. I have offered it up myself on numerous occasions. This advice now needs to be qualified, and it is not obvious to me that one can create other-oriented motives on demand.
Here positive psychologists must do more than suggest changes in someone's behavior - that's easy. We must also figure out how to change someone's motives - that's difficult.
As I am also fond of saying: The good life requires hard work. That's one slogan I think I can keep using.
Brown, S. L., Nesse, R., Vinokur, A. D., & Smith, D. M. (2003). Providing support may be more beneficial than receiving it: Results from a prospective study of mortality. Psychological Science, 14, 320-327.
Konrath, S., Fuhrel-Forbis, A., Lou, A., & Brown, S. (2011). Motives for volunteering are associated with mortality risk in older adults. Health Psychology.