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— The majority people know that if we eat our fruit and veggies, exercise often, and avoid smoking, we’ve a better chance of living longer and more healthy lives. But your physician may not have told you that often offering to others should perhaps be added to that particular checklist that was healthy. A new paper by Dr. Suzanne Richards and collegues at the University of Exeter Medical School, Exeter, UK, reviewed 40 studies from the previous 20 years on the connection between volunteering and health. Published today in BMC Public Health, the paper finds that volunteering is associated with lower depression, increased well-being, and a 22 percent reduction in the threat of dying.

In my experience, all the studies on this subject so far compare volunteers that are active to non- volunteers, following them over time to determine how they are doing a number of years afterwards. This is really a very common procedure used to understand health effects of numerous behaviors, like smoking, taking multivitamins, or eating blueberries. But the issue with this particular technique is that those who volunteer are “healthier and richer” than individuals who do not. So it is not surprising that a few years after they’re still looking pretty great.

Experimental studies that randomly assign many people to volunteer among others to take action else (or to go on a waiting list to get a couple of months) are considerably better. In these studies we understand that exactly the same was started off by everyone.

They were careful about the typical conclusions that may be made from them, although in the new paper, a few such studies were reviewed by the authors. More experimental studies are needed, they said. But if you actually consider it, by definition, it is somewhat odd for studies to compel a group of people to “volunteer.” So maybe that is why these studies are not common.

Who Benefits From Offering and How?

Research workers in the Interdisciplinary Program for Empathy and Altruism Research in the University of Michigan, which I direct, are doing some detective work trying to find out the two big puzzles that remain:

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First, why should volunteering be beneficial to people’s well-being? Here are my three best guesses:

  • Any action is activity that is good. Volunteering means getting off the couch and out from your house, so that it makes us stronger and more physically fit. Individuals that are more fit have a tendency to cope with stress better, which may help them live longer lives.
  • Societal connections can not be bad for people. We are hardwired for face to face contact that includes a lot of touch, eye contact, and smiles. Such interactions release a hormone called oxytocin, which helps us bond and attention for others, and also helps us manage pressure better. Offering is a good way to meet others, make friends, and bond over common beliefs and goals.
  • It just feels good. Volunteering can give us a profound awareness of well-being, which is also correlated with healthier and longer lives.

Next, who is most prone to gain from volunteering? Here are some research-based answers:

  • Our previous research finds that volunteering simply has health benefits for people who do it in order to aid others, rather than to help themselves. Hence please choose a cause you care about and do it with your heart.
  • Our new research is finding that volunteering is better for religious people, maybe because by offering they’re affirming their most cherished beliefs to help and function others.
  • Previous research finds that volunteering can in fact be dangerous for people who offer too much. How much is too much? To date, we don’t have solid answers on that question. If your offering job is just starting to become more of a burden than the usual blessing it’s time to scale back.

I can not help you with that, in the event you wish to live forever. But when you want to live a longer, happier, and healthier life, take all the usual precautions that your physician recommends, and then … get out there and share your time with those that need it. That is the treatment that is caring.

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