The biblical aphorism that it is better to give than to receive seems particularly apt this time of year, though the truest gift of all – the gift of one’s self – is all the more challenging as the holiday season places more demands on our time. But it is worth considering volunteerism in a broader context, and as with the subject of gratitude (see my post from November 12), there is a body of research literature documenting health benefits to those who volunteer in their communities, especially in later life. The notion of greater benefits to the giver than the receiver is indeed supported by scientific research.
Data from a project known as the Health and Retirement Study at the University of Massachusetts indicate that older adults who volunteer have lower rates of hypertension, a contributing factor to cardiovascular disease and cognitive decline. The threshold for this effect appeared to be fairly low, so that even a small time commitment to giving time in community volunteerism conferred the benefit. It was not clear however what mediated the effect, though the researchers found it was not tied to known psychosocial and behavioral risk factors; simply the act of participating was enough.
Benefits from volunteerism are not limited to blood pressure moderation. A recent review found positives in terms of both physical and mental health, leading to lower overall mortality, lower rates of depression, and higher self-rated health scores across the board.
What’s more, even older people with functional limitations experience improvements in several measures by volunteer activities, according to a study from Arizona State University. Looking at more than 900 non-institutionalized individuals with functional disabilities over age 65, the researchers found that volunteering significantly correlated with longevity, with the highest risk of dying in the non-volunteers. They interpreted this to mean that “volunteering buffers the association between functional limitations and mortality.” In other words, it’s more than just feeling useful, though exactly how it translates to physical health improvement remains to be fully defined.
Is volunteering really a matter of life and death? Maybe so. But most people do so out of a sense of altruism, and a desire to remain engaged in their communities, not out of an expectation of personal gain. What is especially encouraging I think is that even the smallest efforts can reap big gains, including – and perhaps especially – for those with limitations. Oscar Wilde had it right when he wrote “The smallest act of kindness is worth than the grandest intention