The Health Benefits of Volunteering

By Susan Hubley, Capital Blue Cross

This editorial is part of Transforming Health’s Expert Voices, where health care professionals discuss issues facing our community. All information is based on the expert’s experience and is not meant to replace professional medical advice or treatment plans. We encourage you to contact a qualified health care professional to discuss your individual health concerns.

The stress, strain, and worry of daily life, and the steady stream of doom and gloom from the nightly news, can grind our spirits and, let’s face it, just make us feel bad.

There is, however, a remedy, abundant and free, that can help soothe the soul, make you feel better, and even help those you don’t know: volunteering.

Nearly 80 million Americans volunteer each year, according to the Corporation for National and Community Service. They pack boxes at the food bank, read books to school kids, hose down kennels at the animal shelter, mentor teens, and perform hundreds of other duties for the good of their communities.

While they ask for nothing in return, research tells us that volunteers may in fact get something quite valuable from the experience: better physical and mental health.

April is National Volunteer Month, a good time to remind people about the benefits, including the health benefits, of volunteering.

Research published by the National Institutes of Health shows participation in voluntary services often leads to better mental and physical health, life satisfaction, self-esteem, and happiness, and fewer symptoms of depression, psychological distress, mortality, and lack of motivation.

One well-publicized study by Allan Luks, an expert on volunteerism, looked at 3,000 volunteers from more than 20 charitable organizations. It found that those who volunteer regularly are about 10 times more likely to be in good health than people who do not volunteer.

Luks even coined the term “helper’s high,” a reference to the rush of endorphins released during and after an act of volunteerism similar to what an athlete might feel during and after competition.

A growing number of employers recognize that by creating an environment that values and encourages people to help others, they create, attract, and retain a happier, healthier workforce. I am fortunate to work for such a company.

To be clear, volunteering is not a panacea. If you break your leg, volunteering at the local soup kitchen may not keep you out of a cast or off crutches. However, volunteering can be a piece in your healthcare puzzle along with good nutrition, exercise, and preventive care, experts tell us.

Those benefits aside, volunteering just feels right. The American Psychological Association says volunteering can create a sense of purpose for people, and connect them to enriching opportunities and experiences.

Former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill may have said it best: “We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.”

Susan Hubley is the vice president of Corporate Social Responsibility for Capital Blue Cross.