Many of us are familiar with that fleeting warm, fuzzy feeling you get from occasional acts of altruism, but there’s increasing evidence that helping others is key to more enduring forms of happiness.
This is according to a report published in the BMJ Open, which found that volunteering is associated with good mental well-being, particularly among middle-aged and older people. While the connection between mental well-being and volunteering has been found in previous research, that has been shown mainly among older people, while this study looked at the association among the British population across the course of life.
The report, surveyed people living in 5000 households in Great Britain over several years, 20% of which said they volunteered. On a questionnaire that measured mental health and wellbeing—where lower scores were considered healthier—people who volunteered scored about 10.7, compared to the average score of 11.4 among people who didn’t volunteer.
“Voluntary action might provide those groups with greater opportunities for beneficial activities and social contacts, which in turn may have protective effects on health status,” said Dr Faiza Tabassum, Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Southampton. “Particularly, with the ageing of the population, it is imperative to develop effective health promotion for this last third of life, so that those living longer are healthier.”
The researchers found that those who had never volunteered had lower levels of emotional wellbeing, starting at midlife and continuing into old age compared with those who did volunteer. Dr Tabassum added: “Volunteering may also provide a sense of purpose, particularly for those people who have lost their earnings, because regular volunteering helps contribute to the maintenance of social networks, and this is especially the case for older people who often live in isolation.”
The findings held true even after taking account of a range of potentially influential factors, including marital status, educational attainment, and social class. Interestingly, the beneficial effects did not seem to apply before the age of 40, but seemed to increase as people got older, and was most apparent among people who said they volunteered frequently compared to people who volunteered less often.
“One explanation might be that during younger ages, volunteering may be perceived of as yet another obligatory task to fulfill in order to be a good student, parent, worker and so forth, so it does not have beneficial effects on health,” the researchers suggest. The study is not the first to link volunteering to better health, both mind and body. Other research has suggested that people over age 50 who volunteer regularly are less likely to develop high blood pressure than non-volunteers.