Volunteering Can Seriously Improve Your Health & Happiness

By Jane Sandwood, freelance writer

About one in four Americans takes time to volunteer, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Volunteering is one of the enduring American traditions that draw people from all shades and walks of life. Proponents of volunteering cite benefits to career prospects and the obligation to help the less privileged as some of the reasons people should volunteer. But there is a surprising benefit of volunteering: its positive impact on health.

How Volunteering Triggers Happiness

For a long time, scientists have attempted to find out if people derive any health benefits from volunteering. Neurologists believe that they have found a connection by observing the reaction of the brain when a person donates money to a charity. Donating triggers psychological changes in the brain’s mesolimbic system, the part of the brain that activates feelings of reward and reinforcement. Decisions to donate usually trigger the brain to release “feel-good” neurotransmitters like vasopressin and oxytocin, triggering happiness. Scientists believe that a similar process plays out when a person dedicates time to volunteering and a number of scientific studies have backed this assessment. A research done by Syracuse University academics found that people who give were 42 percent more likely to report that they are happy compared to people who don’t give.

How Volunteering Helps Reduces Stress

Participating in volunteering campaigns usually puts the volunteer in constant contact with fellow volunteers and other people in a relaxed setting. This kind of social interaction has long been touted by psychiatrists as a protection against some forms of depression. These social interactions also improve moods and reduce stress and anxiety.

In addition, knowing that you are doing things for the good of others usually gives people a sense of purpose and accomplishment. This can help improve mental health, especially among people who are not happy with the community impact of their current job or people who have retired. Some people who have experienced the benefits of volunteering attempt to maximize the stress-reduction effects of volunteering by offering to help out in a posting abroad. Studies have collaborated the theories about the positive impact of volunteering on mental health. In one study by academics from the City University of Hong Kong, the researchers were so impressed by the health benefits of volunteering that they recommended that volunteering should be promoted by public health officials and education policy experts.

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The Effect of Volunteering on Physical Health

Volunteering is known to improve the physical health of volunteers. A study done by academics at Mellon University found that people aged 50 and above who volunteer on a regular basis were less likely to develop high blood pressure compared to those who don’t. There are a number of theories on how volunteering reduces the risk of high blood pressure. Some scientists believe that volunteering wards off high blood pressure by helping people to lead active lives. What is not in doubt from this study and others like it is that volunteering has a good impact on the volunteer’s health.

Volunteering is popular with Americans for a variety of reasons. Some people volunteer primarily to improve their career prospects, while others are interested in playing a part in helping the needy. A growing body of scientific research is uncovering the positive impact of volunteering on people’s health. Volunteering has been shown to increase happiness, relieve stress, and improve the physical health of volunteers.

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