Volunteering for Selfless Reasons Found to Prolong Life

When you think of volunteering, you generally think about how it will benefit those you are helping. You might even admit to it helping you look good to friends and family. But what if we told you that volunteering is good for you — really, really good for you. Not only can it reduce depression, but it also may increase your lifespan. Before you pat yourself on the back for putting your name on an invitation for a fundraising gala, know that these benefits are only seen from certain types of volunteering. When you volunteer for selfless reasons, you reap the health benefits.

Be happy, live longer. So the rationale goes. It’s been proven that busy people are happier, and happy people with reduced stress live longer. This logic generally describes the typical volunteer. However, a new study published in Health Psychology examines the nuances in volunteer motivation and found that lifespan increase in people that volunteered was based on whether their motivation was “other-oriented” or “self-motivated.” In other words, when it comes to volunteering, motivation matters.

The study included 10,317 participants who graduated from high schools in Wisconsin in 1957. The average age of the subjects was 69 years. In 2004, subjects were questioned about volunteering frequency, duration and motives and tracked them for four years. Factors such as age, sex, socioeconomic status and mental health were also recorded and assessed.

The general finding was that people who volunteered in the past ten years significantly reduced their mortality risks when they were assessed four years later. This general finding supports previous research that volunteering prolongs life, however, the study went on to measure motive. The study measured “self-oriented” motivation, which involved volunteering for job advancement or to acquire new skills against “other-oriented” or selfless motivation, such as a true desire to help others.

Results showed that those who volunteered for self-oriented reasons exhibited higher mortality risks when tracked four years later. About 4 percent of self-oriented volunteers were deceased four years later, which is a rate similar to those seniors who did not volunteer at all.

Although the study relied heavily on correlation, and did not examine why “other-oriented” motivation was linked to prolonged life and was limited to participants in one state, there are some important implications that can still be drawn.

Chief among these implications is that volunteers who perform for self-oriented reasons, or for self-gain, may not enjoy their work and environment, which may lead them to suffer from stress and burn out that can adversely affect health. When encouraging seniors to volunteer, it may be equally important to address why and select volunteer opportunities accordingly.

With a variety of good causes and a national push to increase volunteering, this study suggests that finding a good fit, or a volunteer opportunity where one feels valued and motivated by external factors is the best way to reap health benefits.


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