It's not just nice: Here are 11 research-backed reasons to volunteer your time.
Helpfulness is supposed to be its own reward, which, while admirable, isn’t always a compelling case for incorporating it into your life.
Especially if you're busy balancing work, family, relationships, your own health, and all of the chaos that goes with those things, volunteering can fall into the category of things we should do but rarely find time for. That’s why it can be useful to look deeper into the other benefits of being helpful — because it turns out that doing for others actually does a lot for you, too.
Helpfulness doesn’t have to be an altruistic act.
It can also be a lifestyle change that affects your health, happiness, and overall quality of life in positive and surprising ways. And the benefits you get from helping out don't make it any less good for the world. Here are 11 surprising things about how helpfulness affects the helper.
1. Volunteering might help you live longer.
A 2013 review included a look at five studies that found that participants who volunteered compared with nonvolunteers were 22% more likely to have a lower risk of mortality.
2. People who give to others tend to be happier people.
According to "The Paradox of Generosity," Americans who describe themselves as "very happy" volunteer an average of 5.8 hours per month. Those who donate more than 10% of their incomes also exhibited lower depression rates than those who did not.
3. One reason to be helpful? Research shows that it could be in your nature.
Scientists have discovered that the hormones connected to feeling generous vary depending on your DNA.
4. Of course, if you’re born with unhelpful genes, that doesn’t mean you have to be stuck with them.
According to the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds, compassion can actually be taught through meditation and practice. "It's kind of like weight training," researcher Helen Weng told the University of Wisconsin–Madison. "We found that people can actually build up their compassion 'muscle' and respond to others' suffering with care and a desire to help."
5. The happiness we feel after helping is caused by oxytocin released in our bodies.
That oxytocin triggers the release of another chemical, called nitric oxide, which reduces blood pressure.
6. Helping others could help reduce chronic pain.
Studies have shown that people with chronic pain reported feeling less discomfort after helping others with the same ailment.
7. Oxytocin also reduces levels of free radicals in our bodies, which contribute to aging and sometimes cancer.
So, in a way, helpfulness can actually slow aging!
8. Giving triggers more giving.
The New England Journal of Medicine documented a phenomenon that occurred when an anonymous donor gave a kidney. That single act triggered a chain of 10 kidney donations and transplants across five states from spouses and families of the kidney recipients.
9. Helpfulness increases productivity.
Adam Grant has become a leading researcher in organizational psychology based on his projects that show employees are exponentially more productive when they have direct interactions with the people who benefit from their work.
10. In teens and children, helpfulness can help develop more positive attitudes and behaviors.
Adolescents who volunteer tend to have improved grades and better self-image. So all of those school-mandated volunteer hours are definitely a good thing!
11. The benefits of helping others grow as you age.
Studies of older adults have found that retirees experience even greater benefits from their own volunteering than people who are employed.
There's no shame in incorporating helping into your life because it's healthy for you.
Volunteering, or simply being mindful about helping wherever you encounter a need, can be an important part of your own self-care routine that doesn't detract from all the good you're doing for the community. When people find ways to be helpers, everyone benefits.