People Who Volunteer Might Live Longer

Sept. 8, 2011
It turns out that by doing the right thing and volunteering, people also are doing the right thing for their health. A new study finds that people who volunteer may live longer than those who don’t, as long as their reasons for volunteering are to help others rather than themselves.

The research is the first to indicate that volunteers’ motives can have a significant impact on life span. Volunteers lived longer than people who didn’t volunteer if they reported altruistic values or a desire for social connections as the main reasons for wanting to volunteer, according to the study, published online in the American Psychological Association journal Health Psychology. People who said they volunteered for their own personal satisfaction had the same mortality rate 4 years later as people who did not volunteer at all, according to the study.

“This could mean that people who volunteer with other people as their main motivation may be buffered from potential stressors associated with volunteering, such as time constraints and lack of pay,” said the study’s lead author, Sara Konrath, Ph.D., of the University of Michigan.

Researchers examined data from the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study, which follows a random sample of 10,317 Wisconsin high school students from their graduation in 1957 until the present. In 2004, respondents reported whether they had volunteered within the past 10 years and how regularly. They reported their reasons for volunteering (or the reasons they would volunteer, for those who had not done so) by answering 10 questions. Some motives were more oriented toward others (e.g., “I feel it is important to help others”) and some that were more self-oriented (e.g., “Volunteering makes me feel better about myself”).

In 2008, researchers found that 4.3 percent of 2,384 non-volunteers were deceased, which was similar to the proportion of deceased volunteers who reported more self-oriented motives for volunteering (4 percent). However, only 1.6 percent of those volunteers whose motivations were more focused on others were dead 4 years later.

“It is reasonable for people to volunteer in part because of benefits to the self; however, our research implies that, ironically, should these benefits to the self become the main motive for volunteering, they may not see those benefits,” said the paper’s co-author, Andrea Fuhrel-Forbis, MA.

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