Saturday, February 24, 2018

Volunteering is good for your health

Having worked in the nonprofit sector for well over 20 years, I’m familiar with the concept that volunteering is good for the soul, but I recently came across an article describing the effect of volunteer work on PTSD veterans that just blew me away.  I was researching for a presentation I did for the Women in Finance about how beneficial it can be to volunteer.  Everyone knows it usually feels good to give of your time, but do we really understand the depth of the benefit?

A national survey on volunteering found that an overwhelming majority of volunteers reported feeling mentally and physically healthier after a volunteer experience, and that volunteers have better personal scores than non-volunteers on measures of emotional well-being including personal independence, capacity for rich interpersonal relationships and overall satisfaction with life. This survey found that:
  • 76% of people said volunteering made them feel healthier
  • 94% said volunteering improved their mood
  • 96% reported volunteering enriched their sense of purpose in life
  • About a quarter reported that their volunteer work helped them manage a chronic illness by keeping them active and taking their minds off of their own problems
For those of us who have spent time giving back to the community or helping further a cause we believe in, those findings may not be surprising. It's not hard to believe that that helping others makes you feel good, but did you know that it can also help you live longer?

Researchers at the University of Exeter Medical School in the south of England analyzed data from 40 published studies and found evidence that volunteers had a 20% lower risk of death than their peers who do not volunteer. The study also found that volunteers had lower levels of loneliness and depression, increased life satisfaction and enhanced well-being.

Have you ever heard someone say that they often get more out of a volunteer experience than they gave?  It's because volunteering is just plain good for your health.

Evidence of volunteerism’s physical effects can be found in a recent study from Carnegie Mellon University, published in Psychology and Aging. Adults over age 50 who volunteered on a regular basis were less likely to develop high blood pressure than non-volunteers. High blood pressure is an important indicator of health because it contributes to heart disease, stroke, and premature death. This study also found that:
  • 78 percent of volunteers said that volunteering lowered their stress levels.  
  • Mentally stimulating activities, like tutoring or reading, might be helpful for maintaining memory and thinking skills.
The study I came across involving veteran's mental health was very impressive:  Participants showed lower rates of PTSD and depression after taking part in a 6 month volunteer program. They volunteered 20 hours a week for The Mission Continues, a national nonprofit that deploys veteran volunteers on specific projects for up to six months. The results are amazing: 
  • Before volunteering, more than 50 percent of participants said they had symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, and 23.5 percent reported symptoms of depression. 
  • By the program’s completion, only 43 percent showed signs of PTSD and just 15 percent still had signs of depression.
“All veterans in the service program showed improvements in overall health, mental health and social functioning,” said Monica Matthieu, lead researcher and Ph.D., assistant professor of social work at Saint Louis University.  Matthieu said at first she was skeptical that volunteering could decrease symptoms of PTSD, but the data is beginning to sway her.

If anyone ever needed another good reason to go out and help others, all the research showing the  health benefits for volunteering should cause a rush on nonprofits everywhere.  Get out there!  You'll be happier and live longer.  Bonus!