Volunteering is popular among people of all ages—from students to retirees. What are the benefits of all of this giving?
It seems intuitive that helping others would make you feel good, but are there really health benefits? Studies have shown that volunteering can play a role in increasing your overall sense of well-being, alleviating chronic pain, and even reducing depression.
One study examined how volunteering affected 6 different aspects of well-being. The study found that people who were in better physical and mental health were more likely to volunteer. It also found that volunteer work was good for both mental and physical health. People of all ages who volunteered were happier and experienced better physical health and less depression.
A report by the Corporation for National and Community Service states that people who volunteer have greater longevity, higher functional ability, lower rates of depression, and less incidence of heart disease. A review of current research also suggests that volunteering is especially beneficial to older adults and those who serve 100 volunteer hours a year.
In another study, the effects of volunteering on chronic pain patients was evaluated. Pain, disability, self-efficacy (degree of confidence in the ability to control pain), and depression were all measured.
The findings show that pain, depression, and disability decreased after volunteering, while self-efficacy remained stable. Several months later, the researchers found that the improvements continued without harm, suggesting that volunteering may help alleviate chronic pain. The researchers note that the participants reported themes of “making a connection” and having “a sense of purpose” when volunteering.
Researchers have also studied whether volunteering had any effect on depression. They took data from the Americans' Changing Lives survey, but looked at 3 different years of data. They found that initially volunteering lowered depression for those over 65, and over time benefited all age groups. The researchers note that some of the protection from depression came from the social integration of volunteering.
With all of the benefits of volunteering, you may want to spend your next vacation doing something positive. Here are some points to keep in mind:
To view different opportunities, you can start by looking at the International Volunteer Programs Association, which lists different volunteer organizations. Some popular programs include:
Take the time to research volunteer vacations. You will be sure to find one that matches your interests.
International Volunteers Programs Association
United Nations Volunteers
Arnstein P, Vidal M, Wells-Federman C, Morgan B, Caudill M. From chronic pain patient to peer: benefits and risks of volunteering. Pain Manag Nurs. 2002;3(3):94-103.
Corporation for National and Community Service, Office of Research and Policy Development. The Health Benefits of Volunteering: A Review of Recent Research. 2007. Available at: http://www.nationalservice.gov/pdf/07_0506_hbr.pdf. Accessed February 16, 2016.
Musick MA, Wilson J. Volunteering and depression: the role of psychological and social resources in different age groups. Soc Sci Med. 2003;56(2):259-269.
Thoits PA, Hewitt LN. Volunteer work and well-being. J Health Soc Behav. 2001;42(2):115-131.
Volunteering in the United States, 2014. United States Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics website. Available at: http://www.bls.gov/news.release/volun.nr0.htm. Updated February 25, 2015. Accessed February 16, 2016.
Last reviewed February 2016 by Michael Woods, MD