We know about the good that volunteers do. From delivering meals to the elderly to staffing polling stations at election time, we'd be lost without volunteers in our society. But there's another reason why volunteering is a good thing, and that's for the effect on individuals themselves. More and more research shows that volunteering improves health and well-being among people who do it.
The latest comes in the form of a study from the University of Exeter. Researchers reviewed 40 studies from the last 20 years looking at the link between volunteering and health. They found a strong positive association. For example, volunteers had a 22% lower mortality rate than non-volunteers, and they also had higher levels of self-esteem and happiness.
Exactly why volunteers should feel better about themselves is an open question that hasn't been fully answered by research (one problem is that happier people may be more likely to volunteer in the first place). But the Exeter work gives some possible explanations, such as increased social inclusion and activity levels.
The study follows previous reviews that have found similar benefits, particularly among older people who are most at risk of becoming isolated. U.S. states with the highest volunteer rates tend to have the lowest rates for mortality and heart disease, and research indicates there is a "threshold"—two hours per week—where the benefits are maximized.
Does that mean we should do everything we can to encourage volunteering? Maybe not, actually. Sue Richards, who led the latest review, says cajoling people into helping others can backfire, and that the effect is reduced when people are not recognized for their efforts or the activity eats too much into their time.
"The evidence points to volunteering as something that can potentially be good for people, but only when they choose to do it, and at a level that feels right for them," she says, in an email. "Compelling people to volunteer is unlikely to yield health benefits."