Helping Others Helps You to Live Longer

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Want a longer life?  Volunteer to do good and you might benefit at least as much. Visiting the sick, feeding the hungry and chairing that committee no one else wants to touch are morally admirable— but being selfless can also be good for both body and soul.

A new review of the health effects of volunteering found that helping others on a regular basis — like serving food in a soup kitchen or reading to the blind— can reduce early mortality rates by 22%, compared to those in people who don’t participate in such activities.

The review, which included 40 studies and was published in BMC Public Health, also revealed that volunteers benefit from reduced rates of depression and an increased sense of life satisfaction and well being — doing good, it seems, made them feel good. “Our systematic review shows that volunteering is associated with improvements in health,” lead author Dr. Suzanne Richards of the University of Exeter Medical School in England said in a statement.

But don’t expect to reap the benefits of longevity after tossing a few coins in the next charity collection you encounter. It takes regular sacrifice of time and effort to engage the sense of reward that comes from volunteering— in the research, participants volunteered at least an hour of work, once a month and often, pitched in more frequently.

Helping others probably benefits health by increasing social contact and reducing loneliness, which another review found to be as dangerous as smoking in contributing to high blood pressure, heart attacks, strokes and dementia.  In contrast, socializing with friends and family — which volunteer work promotes — lowers dementia risk.

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But taken too extremes, even being selfless can be too much of a good thing. The authors found some  studies that suggested people who sacrificed in order to care for family members could become less healthy both emotionally and physically, since they are frequently overwhelmed with conflicting responsibilities. The same can be true for other types of volunteering, if the activities start to become a burden rather than a relief.

“There may be a fine line between volunteering enough to experience mental health benefits (up to 10 hours a month) and spending too much time volunteering so it becomes another commitment,” the authors write. “If volunteering becomes a burden, this may lead to ‘burnout.’”

They also note that more work is needed to understand whether volunteering actually improves health and leads to longer lives; it may be that volunteers are generally more active and socially engaged, and therefore healthier to begin with.

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Scientists will also want to better understand whether volunteering to reap benefits for your own health and longevity mitigates the feel-good effects of pitching in; presumably altruism and the satisfaction that comes from connecting with others as you help them is important to the benefits.

To promote those advantages, the United Nations as well as many European governments are encouraging more citizens to volunteer, to improve social networks in local communities and possibly even advance public health and public safety. Only 27% of Americans and 22% of Europeans volunteer at all, compared to 36% of Australians. Even if people start pitching in for selfish reasons — to live longer or improve their own health— the hope is that the spirit of giving will end up sustaining more good works.