The Benefits of Volunteering: Physical and Mental

Volunteering time to organizations, as well as providing monetary donations towards charities and non-profits, have their obvious benefits. Selflessness, doing right by others, beefing up the resume, and tax breaks, but what about the others? The ones that aren’t so obvious.

Numerous studies have found that acts of charity actually has positive mental and physical impacts on those who do so, no matter their age or circumstance. Physically known to lower the risk of dementia, reduce cardiovascular risk, and lower blood pressure, generosity has also been found to lead to less depression and anxiety as well as increase overall happiness.

happy volunteers

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There is a part of the brain called the mesolimbic pathway, or the reward pathway. When people commit, or even think about small acts of kindness and generosity, they activate this part of the brain, which is also responsible for managing feelings of gratification. Behaving selflessly actually causes our bodies to release our “happiness chemicals” like dopamine, endorphins and oxytocin.

While the thought of providing for ourselves sounds a bit more appealing than providing for and giving to others, it won’t lead to long-term happiness the way selflessness does. “If you are a recipient of a good deed, you may have momentary happiness, but your long-term happiness is higher if you are the giver,” said Dan Ariely, professor of behavioral economics and psychology at Duke University.

Ariely theorizes that the increase in happiness derives from the satisfaction that following rules and taking credit for doing something good brings us. He also notes that how we give is an important factor.

A 2012 study from the Health Psychology journal found that altruistic volunteers will live longer than those who don’t. A national survey of 4,500 American adults–the 2010 United Healthcare/Volunteer Match Do Good Live Well Study–found that those with a generous spirit have been known to experience a reduction in troublesome sleep, helplessness and hopelessness, and anxiety, as well as a stronger sense of control over chronic conditions. They also are known to have better relationships with others and healthy social networks.

Experts have even gone so far to say that if the positive effects of volunteering could put into a bottle and sold in stores, the inventor would be a billionaire. In terms of using volunteering as a means to manage chronic pain, Stephen Post, founding director of the Center for Medical Humanities, Compassionate Care, and Bioethics at Stony Brook University School of Medicine, believes “if you could say that on a scale of 1 to 10, insulin as a treatment for diabetes is a 9.5, drugs for Alzheimer’s disease are 0.05, volunteering is somewhere up around a 7.”

One of the central theories behind volunteerism as a marker of optimal physical health is that it leads to boosts in self-esteem and prevents individuals from becoming socially isolated, which have both been long connected to better health. Additionally, certain volunteering activities can expose participants to environment and circumstances that may humble their own, reducing stress and unhappiness, which have been known to reduce cardiovascular risk in adults.

“We are on the cusp of reaching the point where we are going to see more areas in clinical care, including preventative medicine, psychiatry, adolescent pediatrics, geriatrics, pain clinics and cardiology, where health care professionals recommend volunteering as a therapeutic behavior,” said Stephen Post.