When you think about activities that help with stress, depression and even physical health, a variety of ideas may come to mind: yoga, meditation or even exercise. But research shows another activity is also associated with positive health benefits: volunteering.
Studies have shown that people who volunteer feel more socially connected, less lonely and less depressed. One study linked volunteering to having lower blood pressure,
“I frequently suggest volunteering to my patients,” says Dr. Daniel Lazar, an internal medicine physician at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge, Ill. “Many of my retired patients become restless, and some even start getting depressed, as they feel like they are no longer contributing to society. Retiring can also adversely affect family dynamics and relationships, but volunteering can abate this in many ways.”
And the act of volunteering is not only gratifying for the mind, but also for the body.
A study from Carnegie Mellon University found that adults who volunteered on a regular basis were less likely to develop high blood pressure compared to those who didn’t volunteer in the age group over 50.
Experts hypothesize the association could be a result of an increase in physical activity for an older population who may not otherwise be active. Or perhaps the link between volunteering and lower stress levels explains the physical health benefits.
“I am not surprised that volunteering has been shown to lower blood pressure and increase lifespan,” says Dr. Lazar. “It has been linked to brain chemistry that is similar to exercise, which involves dopamine receptors. And I have seen actual health benefits to volunteering among my own patients. It increases their social interaction with others, leads to more physical exertion and gives them a sense of purpose.”
“Most people find it gratifying to help others in need,” adds Dr. Marla Hartzen, Director of Psychiatry Training at Advocate Lutheran. “The basis of Positive Psychology is that there are 24 character strengths which people use to bring joy and meaning to their lives, and kindness is one of them. Volunteering is a way of practicing kindness.”
And the benefits don’t stop there; another study in the journal Health Psychology found that people who volunteered regularly for the right reasons lived longer.
“I routinely recommend volunteering to those who could use more structure to their week, new opportunities to enlarge their world, are in need of social experiences or are preparing to return to the workforce after an extended absence,” says Dr. Hartzen.
And it can even help with self-esteem and increase happiness. Research shows people who give their time have a greater sense of purpose and life satisfaction.