Volunteering Makes You Feel Like You Have a Larger Purpose—And That Increases Your Longevity

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Photo: Getty Images / Klaus Vedfelt
The ultimate goal of volunteering is to help others. And when you're doing work that's genuinely helpful, you get to make meaningful change in another person's life while also helping yourself. And I don't just mean basking in that yay-I'm-a-good-person feeling—new research shows that one of the biggest benefits of volunteering is that it can help you live a longer, healthier life.

"Humans are social creatures by nature. Perhaps this is why our minds and bodies are rewarded when we give to others," says Eric S. Kim, PhD, research scientist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, in a press release. "Our results show that volunteerism among older adults doesn't just strengthen communities, but enriches our own lives by strengthening our bonds to others, helping us feel a sense of purpose and well-being, and protecting us from feelings of loneliness, depression, and hopelessness."

Dr. Kim is the lead investigator of a study published in June in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. He and his team used data, face-to-face interviews, and survey responses from 12,998 participants selected from the Health and Retirement Study—"a large, diverse, prospective, and nationally representative cohort of U.S. adults" who are older than 50. They evaluated if changes in volunteering were associated with indicators of physical health, health behaviors, and psychosocial well-being. Participants who volunteered 100 or greater hours a year (a little less than two hours a week) faired better than those who volunteered zero hours a year. Those who volunteered had a reduced risk of mortality and physical limitations and higher physical activity levels. Additionally, they experienced lower feelings of depression, hopelessness, and loneliness; and increased optimism and feelings that they had a purpose in life.

A 2014 study found that having a purpose was associated with a lower risk of mortality. It's also one of Blue Zones' "Power 9" pillars of lifestyle habits of the world’s healthiest, longest-lived people.

“Whether your goal is to beat cardiovascular disease or cancer, or even to live a long and healthy life, study after study has found an association of purpose in life with all kinds of better health outcomes—an effect that stands regardless of age, sex, education or race,” says John Day, MD, author of The Longevity Plan.“You have to have a reason to get out of bed every morning. Something that pushes and motivates you. For without purpose it is next to impossible to maintain the healthy behaviors and lifestyle that is conducive to a long and healthy life.”

It's worth noting that this research was conducted prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Not everyone, especially older adults, is in a position to volunteer. But if you can find a way to help in a way that doesn't put you or your loved ones at risk, Dr. Kim says you'll thank yourself later.

"Now might be a particular moment in history when society needs your service the most. If you are able to do so while abiding by health guidelines, you not only can help to heal and repair the world, but you can help yourself as well," says Dr. Kim. "When the COVID-19 crisis finally subsides, we have a chance to create policies and civic structures that enable more giving in society. Some cities were already pioneering this idea before the pandemic and quarantine, and I hope we have the willingness and resolve to do so in a post-COVID-19 society as well."

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