Beyond Helping Others: 10 Ways Volunteering May Help Volunteers

Older adults who volunteer regularly could reap a variety of benefits.

Posted Jun 11, 2020

 maxstockphoto/Shutterstock
Source:  maxstockphoto/Shutterstock

In addition to strengthening communities and helping to "make the world a better place," volunteers who spend at least 100 hours per year volunteering may reap multiple psychological and physical health benefits, according to a new longitudinal study from Harvard. These findings (Kim et al., 2020) were published online June 11 in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine."Humans are social creatures by nature. Perhaps this is why our minds and bodies are rewarded when we give to others," first author Eric Kim of Harvard University's T.H. Chan School of Public Health said in a news release.

This large-scale study of older adults involved a diverse, nationally representative cohort of 12,988 participants residing in the U.S. with an average age of 66. Participants were randomly selected from the nationwide Health and Retirement Study (HRS) and divided into two groups that were each tracked for a total of four years between 2010-2016.

The results show that in comparison to study participants who never volunteered, older adults (over age 50) who volunteered for at least 100 hours per year (about two hours a week) tended to be better off, on average, on a range of psychological and physical health outcomes.

Notably, this volunteerism study doesn't provide evidence that volunteering is a magic elixir for every imaginable ailment under the sun.

After evaluating 34 physical health and psychological/social well-being outcomes associated with volunteering, Kim et al. could not confirm a correlation between volunteering and improvements of many chronic conditions such as arthritis, cancer, cardiovascular disease, chronic pain, cognitive impairment, diabetes, hypertension, lung disease, obesity, and stroke.

That said, there is plenty of good news related to volunteerism in the U.S. In 2017, a national service report by AmeriCorps and Senior Corps found that almost one in three adults (30.3%) in the United States volunteered through some type of organization. Since then, volunteerism has become more widespread. Last year, 77.4 million Americans spent an estimated 6.9 billion hours volunteering. The billions of hours that people in the U.S. spend volunteering every year creates a three-way win.

First, volunteerism benefits every individual and each family that receives help. Second, volunteering nourishes the greater good in society and collectively fortifies local communities. Third, the latest research (2020) suggests that volunteers who spend about two hours per week volunteering may reap some mental and physical health benefits.

What are the psychological and physical health outcomes in older adults associated with volunteering for roughly two hours per week? Kim and his colleagues identified 10:

  1. Lower risk of mortality 
  2. Fewer physical functioning limitations 
  3. Higher levels of physical activity
  4. Better psychosocial outcomes 
  5. More frequent contact with friends
  6. Less loneliness
  7. Increased optimism 
  8. More robust sense of purpose in life 
  9. Less hopelessness
  10. Fewer depressive symptoms 

"The growing older adult population possesses a vast array of skills and experiences that can be leveraged for the greater good of society via volunteering," the authors conclude. "With further research, volunteering is an activity that physicians might suggest to their willing and able patients as a way of simultaneously enhancing health and society."

There is a coronavirus-related cautionary note about this study. Because this volunteerism research was conducted before the COVID-19 pandemic, the researchers want to make clear that many types of volunteering that involve face-to-face social contact may be inadvisable for older adults right now.

"When the COVID-19 crisis finally subsides, we have a chance to create policies and civic structures that enable more giving in society," Kim states in the news release. "Some cities were already pioneering this idea before the pandemic and quarantine, and I hope we have the willingness and resolve to do so in a post-COVID-19 society as well."

References

Eric S. Kim, Ashley V. Whillans, Matthew T. Lee, Ying Chen, Tyler J. VanderWeele. "Volunteering and Subsequent Health and Well-Being in Older Adults: An Outcome-Wide Longitudinal Approach." American Journal of Preventative Medicine (First published online: June 11, 2020) DOI: 10.1016/j.amepre.2020.03.004