By: Dan Regan
To volunteer is to do something willingly, without compulsion or generally without compensation, for someone or something. In volunteering, the focus, rightly, is beyond oneself. The goal is to serve others, helping them accomplish their desired ends. Volunteers serve on fire crews and rescue squads, mentor youth, serve on non-profit boards in the arts and family services, build Habitat houses, deliver meals to seniors, help govern our towns and schools, and deliver meals to seniors. These forms of volunteerism, and countless others, contribute to the health of our communities and help make the world a better place. According to the Corporation for National and Community Service’s 2015 report, a third of Vermont’s residents volunteer, contributing over 20 million hours of service annually, ranking the state eighth among the 50 states and Washington, D.C.
The interesting thing I want to focus on, for purposes of this Live Well Lamoille blog post, is that volunteering also benefits the volunteer and may contribute significantly to his or her own wellbeing. Research affirms the positive connection between volunteering and the physical and emotional health of those who participate. But the connections are sometimes hard to tease out. After all it’s possible that healthier people may volunteer, without their volunteer activities exerting a real impact upon their wellbeing. With that in mind, here I will present only a few findings that come from studies (most from the early 2000s) that can truly claim the effect of volunteerism on volunteers:
- Older adults who gave social support to others had lower rates of mortality than those who did not, even when controlling for socioeconomic status, education, marital status, age, gender, and ethnicity, according to a large survey.
- An over-time study of older married adults found that those individuals who reported providing support to friends, relatives, and neighbors had lower rates of mortality five years later than those who had not reported providing support.
- Volunteering can provide a sense of purpose, especially for those who experience a major change of identity, such as retiring or becoming an empty-nest parent.
- Volunteering leads to lower rates of depression for older adults, even when controlling for other forms of social interaction.
- Individuals suffering from chronic pain experienced declines in their pain intensity and decreased levels of disability and depression when they began to serve as peer volunteers for other chronic pain sufferers.
- According to a Carnegie-Mellon University study (2013), “many people [found] volunteer work to be helpful with respect to stress reduction,” and of course stress is very strongly linked to health outcomes. The same study also posited a connection between volunteering and lowered blood pressure, and thus a reduced risk of hypertension.
Thankfully, our friends and neighbors offer their services voluntarily, with others—not themselves—uppermost in mind, and our communities are the better for it. But the connection—between volunteer service and the wellbeing of volunteers—may be perceived without being articulated. In fact that connection may help make sense of the seeming paradox in the way the US has historically been described: as both an intensely altruistic as well as individualistic nation.
To give is, truly, to receive. So do yourself a good deed and volunteer to help others!
Dan Regan, a sociologist, is the former dean of academic affairs at Johnson State College and continues to work part-time for Northern Vermont University.