5 Surprising, Science-Backed Benefits of Volunteering

All the more reason to keep being and doing good.

Teamwork in homeless shelter
Photo: Getty Images

When you choose to help clean up a local playground, serve dinner at a food pantry, or spend the day with seniors at a nursing home, your primary purpose and motivation for volunteering is to help someone else. But did you know that volunteering, being kind, and showing compassion for others benefits those who do it, too?

In fact, not only does volunteering your time, energy, or money to a cause often make people feel good in the moment—research has actually found that acts of kindness can increase happiness, reduce stress, and even help you live longer. Don't believe it? Here are some of the most notable personal perks of doing good things for others, according to years of research.

1. Overall life satisfaction.

In 2014, a Gallup poll found that, of the 100,000 American adults surveyed, those who volunteered scored nearly 12 points higher (with an average score of 70) on Gallup's well-being index than those who did not (an average of 58.5 points). Researchers suggest that the volunteers' increased well-being could be attributed to a greater sense of purpose and meaning, an opportunity to build relationships, increased physical activity, and a renewed perspective on life.

2. A happier outlook.

While there are many factors that influence happiness, a 2008 study from the London School of Economics proved that, thanks to increased empathy and shifted priorities, people who volunteered (even as infrequently as once a month) were 7 percent happier than those who did not. In a more recent survey from The Ascent in 2019, participants who scored in the top percentile for "high-generosity" were almost three times more likely than "low-generosity" participants to report being very happy every day.

3. Longer life.

A 2011 study revealed that those who serve in their communities live longer than those who do not—as long as their motives for volunteering aren't self-centered. In another study, a meta-analysis of 14 studies, published in 2013, rendered similar results, finding that, on average, older adults (55 and older) who volunteered reduced their mortality risk by 47. But again, selfless motives for volunteering seem to be the key.

4. Reduced depression, stress, and anxiety.

Focusing on others instead of your own day-to-day struggles may diminish stress and anxiety. A 2003 study from The University of Texas, for example, found that helping to improve your community lowers levels of anxiety and depression, especially in people over age 65. In 2015, a study found that random acts of kindness can lower anxiety, particularly social anxiety, by "counter[ing] the socially anxious person's fear of negative evaluation by promoting more positive perceptions and expectations of how other people will respond," explains the study's co-author Lynn Alden, PhD.

When we practice kindness, whether on a small or larger scale, our brains release neurochemicals that promote our sense of well-being, known in the psychology world as the "helper's high," because it releases endorphins.

5. Lower blood pressure.

Emotional benefits are one thing, but physiological ones? Now, that's amazing. Researchers from Carnegie Mellon University, for example, discovered that older adults who spent at least 200 hours per year volunteering were 40 percent less likely to develop high blood pressure than those who did not volunteer. And the Random Acts of Kindness Foundation cites research by David Hamilton, PhD, uncovering that "acts of kindness create emotional warmth, which releases a hormone known as oxytocin. Oxytocin causes the release of a chemical called nitric oxide, which dilates the blood vessels. This reduces blood pressure and, therefore, oxytocin is known as a 'cardioprotective' hormone. It protects the heart by lowering blood pressure."

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