Did you know that volunteering is good for your body? REALLY good for it. In fact, volunteering just two hours each week (or 100 hours a year) has been found in studies to be associated with significant health benefits (Lum and Lightfoot, 2005; Luoh and Herzog, 2002).
Research has found that volunteers report greater physical well-being and life satisfaction than do non-volunteers (Van Willigen 2000). Those over the age of 60 who volunteer report higher levels of health and physical functioning, and lower levels of depression than those who don’t volunteer (Morrow-Howell et al., 2003).
Additionally, helping others who suffer from similar ailments has been found to help reduce one’s own suffering. Those with chronic pain, for example, experience declines in their own pain intensity and a decreased level of disability when serving as peer volunteers for others with chronic pain (Arnstein et al., 2002).
Volunteering can even prolong life!
One study found that those who volunteered for at least 100 hours per year were one-third as likely as non-volunteers to die within the time frame studied (Luoh and Herzog, 2002). Other research found that those who volunteered with two or more organizations experienced 44 percent lower mortality rates over a five-year period than those elderly persons who did not volunteer (Oman et al., 1999).
The fact that helping others also beneficially impacts our own mental and physical health reminds us that the division between self and other may not be as separate as it seems. Shared experience entails the sharing of positive emotions and a sense of connection, essential to us as social creatures. Volunteering also helps provide a sense of purpose and accomplishment (Greenfield and Marks, 2004).
Given the research findings, perhaps volunteering should be recommended by health practitioners as part of a basic care plan, along with the usual guidelines for diet modification and exercise. Check-ups could thus extend beyond one’s individual physicality to include one’s larger relational, interconnected body.
Here’s an example of how eager people are to help and the difference volunteering can make. Several months ago, Dr. Billy Earle Dade Middle School in Texas sponsored a “Breakfast with Dad” event, inviting the children to bring in their fathers to serve as role models and mentors for the boys. Given the number of students without fathers at home or with working fathers unable to attend, the school posted an ad on social media inviting 50 men from the larger community to come volunteer at the event.
Over six hundred men appeared at the event! They represented a vast a diversity of backgrounds and life experience and were excited to mentor the students. Some voiced wanting to “give back,” grateful for the presence of male role models in their own lives. They gave advice and guidance to the middle school boys, and all stood arm in arm together at the end of the event in a large circle that warmed the auditorium and the hearts of all present.