Volunteering Can Lower Your Blood Pressure, Increase Your Lifespan, and Make You Happier

Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

From Good Housekeeping

You already know the number one reason you should volunteer: it makes the world a better place. And you probably have some personal motivations too. Maybe you just retired and are looking for a gig to replace your nine to five. Or you're passionate about an issue and want to advance it as much as possible. You might even volunteer because it's a fun way to meet new people in your area.

But if you need even more motivation to give volunteering a try, consider this: Healthcare providers at the Mayo Clinic cite research that suggests volunteering may make you happier (like a white paper published in the journal BMC Public Health), as well as evidence that points to lower risk of cardiovascular issues as volunteering keeps you moving (it might even increase your lifespan!). Yep, we thought you'd be interested. Ahead, you'll find all the benefits of volunteering you could achieve with just a few hours of service a month. And for ways to start getting involved today, don't miss these fun community service ideas for kids, teens, and adults.

Volunteers may live longer.

Frequent volunteers know that showing up for their communities can definitely be a boost for their mood and help them feel more connected to others — but they might not expect that giving back may actually lengthen their lives. A Journal of Health Psychology review of the Longitudinal Study on Aging, which compiled data from more than 7,000 Americans ages 70 and older, found that people who volunteered frequently tended to live longer than those who didn't. The link remained constant even when factors like medical status, physical activity, and social integration were taken out of the picture. The association was greatest for volunteers who also visited friends or attended religious services on a regular basis.

Volunteering could decrease your risk of dementia.

Adults who've retired from their jobs have a big reason to pick up a steady volunteer gig: It could slash their risk of cognitive decline. One 2017 study from the University of Calgary monitored 1,001 Swedish citizens who had retired in 2010 over a five-year period. The retirees were divided into three groups: People who volunteered at least one hour a week, people who volunteered sporadically, and people who never volunteered. At the end of the five years, the researchers found that the people who had volunteered at least one hour a week were 2.44 times less likely to develop dementia than those who had never volunteered. The seniors who volunteered sporadically did not reap any additional benefits or preventative measures to their cognitive health.

The researchers have some idea as to why this happened. “Work has many benefits beyond just a paycheck," lead researcher Yannick Greip told the University of Calgary News. "It brings a structure to the day ... It offers social contact with people outside of our family. It brings us the social status we get with a job title. It makes us feel like we’re making a meaningful contribution to society. And there’s a physical aspect as well, even if it’s just walking from your house to the spot where you do your volunteer work."

Volunteering can help you feel more connected to others.

You know that you'll probably meet new people at any volunteer event, but did you know those people could bolster your overall feelings of connectedness? A 2018 study published in the journal BMC Public Health found an association between volunteering and improved mental health, physical health, and life satisfaction. But the strongest correlation they found was between volunteering and social well-being, which was assessed by how strongly participants agreed or disagreed with the following statements: "I am lacking companionship" and "I feel isolated from others."

However, if you'd like to work toward this benefit, you'll need to participate in a certain type of volunteering. In the study, the correlation was only found in those who participated in "other-oriented" volunteering as opposed to "self-oriented" volunteering. Other-oriented volunteers were more likely to focus their efforts on causes like human services, education, and youth development, while self-oriented volunteers were more likely to volunteer for cultural, political, environmental, or business groups.

Volunteering can make you happier.

Giving back to your community might be quick ticket to a happier life. Research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in the 1990s found that for older Americans, participating in community service and social events was a strong predictor of life satisfaction. A more recent study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Psychology discovered that people who volunteered more, as indicated by data in an organized survey, tended to report fewer symptoms of depression.

The same thing goes for giving money to charity too. A survey by the Gallop World Poll found that in 120 of 136 countries, people who had donated to charity in the past month reported greater life satisfaction. In fact, the researchers found that donating to charity had a similar effect on happiness as doubling household income.

Volunteering can lower your risk of high blood pressure.

Your volunteer work can improve more than just your mental health — it can also boost your physical health. A 2013 study published in the journal Psychology and Aging found that regular volunteers were less likely to develop hypertension than non-volunteers. For the study, researchers measured participants' volunteer hours as well as blood pressure levels twice, four years apart. Those who had volunteered at least 200 hours in the year before the tests were linked to lower likelihood of high blood pressure over the course of the four years than those who hadn't. There was no association between volunteering and high blood pressure risk for those who volunteered fewer than 200 hours.

“Many people find volunteer work to be helpful with respect to stress reduction, and we know that stress is very strongly linked to health outcomes," Rodlescia Sneed, Ph.D., the study's lead author and professor at Michigan State University told Harvard Health Publishing at the time. Keep in mind, 200 hours a year is just 16.5 hours a month — something that's totally doable if you find a consistent way to work it into your schedule.

Volunteers can feel a stronger sense of purpose.

That sense of pride you feel after wrapping up a day of service? It can linger — and that can positively impact your mental health in the long term. Research published in the journal Sociological Forum in 2013 found that volunteering just one day a month may provide you a greater sense of purpose and help you feel more connected to your community. The researchers found that it didn't matter how much time someone volunteered; it only mattered that they had formed an identity as a volunteer and considered volunteering a part of who they were.

This cause and effect could be even greater in older adults. A preceding study published in the Journal of Gerontology in 2004 illustrated that volunteering could prevent older adults with "role identity absences" — things like retirement, divorce, and an empty nest — from suffering poor psychological well-being. Typically, people with a greater number of role-identity absences report worse mental health and a weaker sense of purpose in life. Volunteering may mitigate that negative impact and helped participants feel a greater sense of purpose, which is something we can all get behind.

Looking for ways to get involved without leaving your home? Try one of these virtual volunteer opportunities you can do from your couch.

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