Is it good to be good? People express their compassion in different ways. Some volunteer with people. Others volunteer with animals. Although all good works produce health benefits, including improved immunity and reduced anxiety and depression, different activities have different ripple effects.
Dr Stephen G. Post, editor of Altruism and Health (Oxford, 2007), says, “A strong correlation exists between the well-being, happiness, health and longevity of people who are emotionally and behaviorally compassionate, so long as they are not overwhelmed by helping tasks.”
Whatever your benevolent activity, you can expect a natural helper’s high. Allan Luks, the executive director of the Institute for the Advancement of Health, coined the term “helper’s high” to describe the calm people feel after they have helped others.
Luks found this state of being in the 1980s, while working as executive director for New York’s Big Brothers Big Sisters, where he surveyed thousands of volunteers about their experiences. From the results he theorised that helping releases pain-killing endorphins in the brain of the helper. Since then, multiple studies have supported Luks’s hypothesis.
One study, the Longitudinal Study of Aging, found the social benefits of volunteering are especially relevant for the elderly. Researchers assessed the health and volunteer efforts of a representative sample of more than 7500 Americans older than 70 years.
After following study participants for eight years, researchers reported in the Journal of Health Psychology in 2005 that frequent volunteers had significantly reduced mortality compared to non-volunteers. The study’s authors concluded that enriching social networks was a key factor in longevity among volunteers.
Volunteering doesn’t necessarily have to be with people in order to offer a social benefit. Volunteering with animals can help people who are normally withdrawn feel comfortable enough to talk to animals, sometimes sparking conversation with people nearby.
Making connections is an important part of volunteering, says Dr Kathleen Hall, founder of the Stress Institute. “Friendships are not a luxury, but are essential to work-life balance and your health.”
Nevertheless, some people simply feel more relaxed with animals than they do with people, and prefer to spend their volunteer time on wildlife and conservation efforts.
People working with wildlife testify to how effectively animals soothe. Peter Mackelworth, conservation director for the Adriatic Dolphin Project of the Blue World Institute (blue-world.org) in Croatia, is involved with the longest study of bottlenose dolphins in the Mediterranean Sea. Eco-volunteers participate in the study by helping researchers record data on the dolphins spotted.
“There is always the expectation to see dolphins, so until we achieve that with volunteers, then there may be a little nervousness in the air. Once that is done, it becomes quite relaxing to be around the dolphins”, Mackelworth explains.
Relaxation is another benefit of volunteering, and relaxation can be especially renewing and revitalising in the presence of animals.
Whatever reason you have for volunteering, it is important to recognise that it does you as much good as you do for others. Those you are helping would want it that way!