Volunteer Vacations: The Health Benefits of Helping Others

Image for volunteer vacation articleVolunteering is popular among people of all ages—from students to retirees. What are the benefits of all of this giving?

Creating a Sense of Well-Being

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.

Helping Chronic Pain

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.

Lowering Depression

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.

Learning About Volunteer Vacations

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:

  • Location—Some people choose a location close to home or within their country, while others want to go abroad.
  • Type of challenge—There are many types of challenges ranging from physically grueling to intellectually stimulating. You will have to decide which is best for you.
  • Your skills—Your professional skills may be in great demand in less developed countries. Helping others may also help to prevent job burnout and improve job satisfaction.
  • Language—If you are contemplating travel to a foreign country, take into consideration the language spoken and your ability to communicate.
  • Length of time—Most volunteer vacations run from 1-3 weeks. Decide how much time you can donate.
  • Free time—Ask the organization you are volunteering for about their policy on free time. Will you have time to go off on your own and explore?

To view different opportunities, you can start by looking at the International Volunteer Programs Association, which lists different volunteer organizations. Some popular programs include:

  • The Earthwatch Institute offers trips to remote locations where scientific research is done from filming dolphins to testing water to gathering nutritional information.
  • The American Hiking Society offers trips from Maine to Alaska where participants rebuild footpaths, cabins, and shelters.
  • Wilderness Volunteers work with public land agencies like the Forest Service to preserve and clear wild lands.
  • Passport in Time centers its vacations on archaeological excavations and preserving historical structures.
  • The Sierra Club works on a variety of tasks, from observing marine life to maintaining vulnerable wilderness areas.

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


Volunteer Canada

Volunteer Toronto


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  Last Updated: 2/16/2016