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5 Science-Backed Reasons Volunteering Is Actually a Powerful Way to Feel Healthier

Talk about feel-good vibes: recent research suggests kindness actually improves your health, fights depression (including in teens)—and might even help you live longer.

Young man with Down syndrome sitting and embracing with his tutor after painting indoors at home, homeschooling.Halfpoint Images/Getty Images

Self-care has been having a moment—and with good reason. Some researchers studying the pandemic era and other global events are documenting how, in the absence of normal routines and everyday schedules, attention to self-care helped people lower stress and get healthier. One such study was recently published in the peer-reviewed British Medical Journal.

Interestingly, other recent research suggests showing that same notion of loving attention toward others may also improve one’s own health. In fact, one study published in 2020 in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine gleaned compelling perspective from a sample of 13,000 Americans: participants who volunteered greater than 100 hours per year experienced a long-term reduced risk of mortality and physical limitation, greater physical activity, and greater positivity, happiness and optimism—and less loneliness—than a group that didn’t volunteer at all.

There’s more…

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Volunteering makes us happier

Throughout history, cooperation and community have been integral parts of human survival. A 2018 report in the journal Nature Human Behavior suggests that’s one reason we feel so rewarded when we help others: because ensuring the well-being of those around us is hardwired into our survival instinct.

A 2020 study published in the Journal of Happiness Studies quantified this effect, finding that people who volunteered at least once a month reported better mental health than those who didn’t. In fact, the researchers found that volunteering their time made study participants as happy as having an extra $1,100.

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Volunteering increases our sense of purpose

Daun Baker, PhD, Director of Psychological Services at Amwell, says the act of volunteering typically involves taking action and engaging with others, which are two mental health needs most humans have.

This can be especially important for people feeling disconnected or directionless. “Someone who feels helpless may gain a new skill and, as a result, feel greater agency over their own life,” she says, while also gaining a sense of camaraderie in the process.

The 2020 happiness study found that volunteering had the most profound impacts on people ages 16 to 24 and 55 to 74, largely tied to this opportunity to develop new skills and forge social connections.

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Volunteering can help manage depression and anxiety

The sense of social connection we get from volunteering is associated with reduced symptoms of depression, as well. The link is so strong that researchers are pushing to include volunteering as a part of clinical treatment approaches for depression, particularly among adolescents.

Volunteering can also help to change the cycle of negative thought patterns, a significant player in conditions like depression. That’s because taking positive action forces a change in perspective—whether that’s by interacting with people (and their stories) whom you might not otherwise encounter, understanding your power to have an impact on others’ lives, or realizing that you do have useful skills to share with the world.

By taking focus off your own worries—which itself helps with stress reduction—volunteering can bring about a much-needed shift in perspective about your ability to problem solve, Dr. Baker adds. And as you exercise that volunteering muscle more, this perspective shift builds greater self-esteem and confidence.

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Volunteering impacts our physical health

Of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine study’s discovered link between volunteering and a lower risk of early death, Dr. Baker says that this effect comes in part from how volunteering can reduce stress and depression. This in turn promotes longevity, improved physical health, and better management of chronic diseases.

Psychology researchers from Carnegie Mellon University have even found that people who volunteered reduced their risk of high blood pressure—a leading risk factor for heart disease—by a whopping 40%.

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What’s the best way to volunteer?

“Volunteering for any cause can be beneficial,” Dr. Baker says. “However, volunteering for a cause that aligns with one’s passions can help you stay engaged.”

She adds that research has shown how volunteering for “other-oriented” causes, such as serving underprivileged social groups, can lead to even greater health benefits.

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Sources

People:

Daun Baker, PhD, Director of Psychological Services at Amwell

Journals:

British Medical Journal: "Relationship between self-care activities, stress and well-being during COVID-19 lockdown: a cross-cultural mediation model"

American Journal of Preventive Medicine: "Volunteering and Subsequent Health and Well-Being in Older Adults: An Outcome-Wide Longitudinal Approach"

Nature Human Behaviour: "The cooperative human"

Journal of Happiness Studies: "Does Volunteering Make Us Happier, or Are Happier People More Likely to Volunteer? Addressing the Problem of Reverse Causality When Estimating the Wellbeing Impacts of Volunteering"

Journal of Social and Personal Relationships: "Social connectedness and depression: Is there added value in volunteering?"

Frontiers in Psychology: "Incorporating Volunteering Into Treatment for Depression Among Adolescents: Developmental and Clinical Considerations"

Websites:

Carnegie Mellon University: "Volunteering Reduces Risk of Hypertension In Older Adults, Carnegie Mellon Research Shows"

Leslie Finlay
In addition to The Healthy, Leslie has written for outlets such as WebMd.com, Fodors.com, LiveFit.com, and more, specializing in content related to healthcare, nutrition, mental health and wellness, and environmental conservation and sustainability. She holds a master's degree in Public Policy focused on the intersection between public health and environmental conservation, and an undergraduate degree in journalism. Leslie is based in Thailand, where she is a marine conservation and scuba diving instructor. In her spare time you'll find her up in the air on the flying trapeze or underwater, diving coral reefs.