How Volunteering, Giving Boosts Your Mood and Health

Volunteering and giving to charity both boost health outcomes and make you feel better.

Have you ever volunteered for a good cause? If yes, how did it make you feel? Did it boost your mood? What about when you donated to your favorite charity? It turns out volunteering and giving are two activities associated with good health and longevity.

Let’s focus on volunteering first.

HOW CAN VOLUNTEERING IMPROVE MY HEALTHIER?

Studies show that people who volunteer tend to have:

  • Less illness
  • Better health overall
  • Higher life and health satisfaction
  • Lower mortality

There are several reasons for these health outcomes, according to researchers.

Social capital: Social capital describes the relationships and shared values that bring people together in communities. This social capital becomes more relevant to our health as we age. High levels of social capital can help older people maintain health. It can also provide support during times of illness and stress. As a result, social capital may delay the onset of severe illness and death.

People who volunteer benefit from enhanced social interaction. This is especially true if they lack a strong social circle outside the volunteer activity.

Mental health: People who volunteer tend to be happier and more satisfied with their lives compared to those who don’t. And while happy people tend to volunteer more, people who aren’t generally happy also benefit from volunteerism because it can improve your sense of well-being and lower rates of depression. Volunteering also has positive implications for the mental health of groups who historically have had worse health outcomes.

It’s possible the relationship between volunteering and better mental health is linear. One study showed that people who volunteered at least once a month reported better mental health than those who volunteered infrequently. More volunteering can result in better mental health.

Moreover, the benefits of volunteering have long-term implications for mental health. A large 2017 study found better mental health outcomes for youth who volunteer – but only when the activity was voluntary. The study concluded that voluntary volunteering in youth generates a “long-term commitment to volunteering and community involvement.”

And there may be some cognitive health benefits, too. A small study that used MRIs to determine brain function in the elderly found higher executive functions in volunteers.

Physical activity: Volunteering doesn’t just promote mental stimulation and social engagement. It can also encourage physical activity, which has benefits for both short- and long-term health. In one study, researchers followed participants for more than 20 years and found an association between volunteering for environmental organizations and a higher level of physical activity, which in turn improves mental and physical health outcomes.

Other studies support these findings. A study published in the journal Pain Management Nursing found that people who volunteer less get less physical activity.

YOUR HEALTH AND CHARITY

Like volunteering, giving to charity also has ties to better health outcomes. Economists, in particular, have been studying this relationship for centuries. And plenty of studies show a link between charitable giving and:

  • Lower mortality
  • Happiness
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Higher self-esteem

Charity, like volunteering, produces good feelings. Economists and scientists refer to this as a “warm glow,” and it may be related to the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that plays a role in the way we feel pleasure, among other things. We feel better when we give – at least temporarily.

Interestingly, we feel somewhat better even when we’re taxed, provided the taxes go to a good cause. But we feel much better when we give voluntarily.

There are two types of charitable giving: general altruism, where only the recipient really benefits, and benevolent giving, where both the recipient and the giver get a benefit. This is where that “warm glow” comes in. Blood donors, for example, are typically benevolent givers. They donate because it helps others and because they feel good after they do it.

Ironically, not giving can actually lead to an adverse effect: guilt and sadness.

Regardless of why we give to charity – or volunteer — the scientific evidence is strong that both benefit us from a health perspective. That should be reason enough to give back and help others.

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