The 2010 Do Good Live Well Survey, released by United Healthcare and VolunteerMatch (www.VolunteerMatch.org), surveyed 4,500 American adults. 68 percent of those who volunteered in the last year reported that volunteering made them feel physically healthier. In addition,
•89% report that "volunteering has improved my sense of well-bring"
•73% agree that "volunteering lowered my stress levels"
•92% agree that volunteering enriched their sense of purpose in life
•72% characterize themselves as "optimistic" compared to 60% of non-volunteers
•42% of volunteers report a "very good" sense of meaning in their lives, compared with 28% of non-volunteers
This is an astonishing survey, suggesting that low thresholds of volunteering can make a big difference in people's well-being. It strikes me that in these hard times of job losses and the sometimes huge relocations to new parts of the country, volunteering may be the best way to recreate community and social capital. This is especially true for a "trailing spouse" who is moving on because their partner has had the right job offer. Those with jobs can throw themselves into the new work environment, but the ones who follow along need a way to engage in prosocial activities as well. Volunteering clearly prevents depression, lowers depression in the mildy affected, and is generally a very gratifying and healthy experience so long as it is not overdone.
As we have moved from Case Western University to Stony Brook University (July 2008), getting involved in helping others has been the key to our eventual adjustment. Various studies suggest that it takes as much as two years to really feel comfortable in a new region, and that the process is easier for extroverts than for introverts. The toll that big moves take on mental and physicial health is well documented. We humans live in place, or as the phenomenologists put it, we are "implaced" beings.
I have just written a book about this big move and all the science of stress and adjustment involved. It is called The Hidden Gifts of Helping, out in early 2011.
Any thoughts on bigs moves and how to handle them are welcome here. This is a topic that we do not discuss enough, and one that creates immense stress in our lives. Of course, it matters how old we are, how embedded we were in a previous community, and for how long.