Volunteering for a healthy mind and body

Psychology and health research are increasingly showing the positive impact of volunteering on the well-being of volunteers. Indeed, evidence suggests the benefits of volunteering are vast and can touch all areas of our life - from the sense of purpose that comes with being involved in a meaningful activity, improved cognitive function, and increased social interaction.1 Benefits can even be attributed to volunteering in an outdoor setting specifically.

Contact with nature

Much research is being conducted into the effects of environmental volunteering. Benefits such as increased time in natural surroundings and more physical exercise are unique to those volunteering outside, and these in turn can have a positive impact on the mental health of volunteers.

Research indicates that contact with nature in outdoor volunteering has positive benefits for both mental and physical health. This has been attributed to increased physical activity and reduced stress levels.2 Furthermore, it has been found that hands-on interaction with nature through volunteering can help individuals suffering from mental illness to reintegrate into society.3

A study into the mood effects of exercise found that those who exercised in an outdoor setting experienced greater improvements in mood, attributed by participants to the restorative and calming effect of greenspace.4

Sense of purpose

Meaningful occupation and contribution to society are both necessary for a person’s well-being. The research shows that many volunteers attribute a sense of achievement and meaning to the work they undertake. Indeed, studies have repeatedly shown that volunteers, no matter their age, gain a sense of purpose and improved quality of life through their volunteering activities.2,3 Volunteering has also been associated with increased confidence and sense of achievement.5

In a study on individuals with mild or moderate dementia, Dr Daniel George of Penn State University in the US found that volunteers reported a renewed sense of purpose and improved quality of life in comparison with those who didn’t undertake volunteering.9

Creative freedom

It has been argued that volunteering can only be considered leisure if the sense of obligation is balanced with creative freedom, which is an intrinsic component of well-being.5,6 Volunteering has also been shown to have a significant positive impact on an individual’s satisfaction with both the amount and use of their leisure time, and many volunteers, especially young people, consider volunteering a time to have fun and make new friends.2,5,7

While volunteering in nature has been strongly correlated with reduced stress levels due to the restorative nature of the environment, Dr George’s research shows outdoor volunteering is not alone in its stress-relieving properties. He shares that the most important finding from his own research with dementia patients volunteering in schools was the significant decrease in stress levels of those who undertook regular volunteering compared to those who did not.

Improved cognitive function

Dr Yannick Griep, assistant professor at University of Calgary in Canada, and his colleagues looked at the role of volunteering in reducing the likelihood of a dementia diagnosis. “Previous studies found evidence for the protective role of physical activity, cognitive activity, or social interactions in lowering the likelihood of being diagnosed with dementia,” Dr Griep says. “We decided to focus on volunteering because voluntary work is a prototypical activity that combines physical and cognitive activity and social interactions in such a way that it resembles a paid job.”

Dr Griep and his colleagues found that those who volunteered regularly reported improved cognitive function and decreased use of anti-dementia medication. They were also more active both physically and cognitively. “Our results clearly indicate that constant volunteering, for at least one hour per week every week, significantly reduces the likelihood of being diagnosed with dementia 2 years and 4 years after being retired,” he says. Participants also reported significantly fewer problems remembering things, fewer problems concentrating, less difficulty making decisions, and less difficulty thinking clearly. “Based on our results,” says Dr Griep, “we would advise everybody who retires to volunteer at least one hour per week and to keep up this voluntary work on a steady basis, every week ideally. By engaging in voluntary work, older people are able to access what is called the ‘latent benefits of work’ (social interaction, daily time structure, social status, meaningful contributions to society) that would otherwise be lost when you retire from a paid job.”

It isn’t just older people who notice cognitive and physical improvements due to volunteering. Students have also reported that volunteering improves their physical health, skillset, and career opportunities.2,5,8 According to Dr Griep, research demonstrates the neurological underpinnings of being physically, cognitively, and socially active – and volunteering is one way to achieve all three of these regardless of age.

“Engaging in activities that require cognitive capacities has been found to increase the use of cognitive skills and functional reorganisation, and induced neurogenesis [the birth of new neurons in the brain], synaptogenesis [the formation of synapses between neurons], and cortical plasticity. It, thus, seems that there is a neurological underlying explanation for the findings we reported in our study,” explains Dr Griep.

Social connection

There is a significant body of research into the positive effects of volunteering on social connection. Volunteering is fundamentally a social activity. Not only do volunteers form relationships with each other and the volunteering organisation, but they also interact with other members of the community. It is important to note, however, that these relationships are not always positive, with exclusion and frustration often being experienced alongside improved social skills, community relationships, and social cohesion.3,6,11

Overall, however, evidence suggests a positive link between volunteering and social well-being. One large study found that 51 per cent of young volunteers began to socialise with people from different backgrounds due to volunteering.3 Another study showed that social interaction and integration into campus society was the most important benefit for student volunteers.5

Altruistic contribution

Volunteering balances community contribution and personal attainment in a form of ‘reciprocal altruism.’ Volunteers provide assistance and support to members of the community and the organisations or charities they work for, while the volunteers themselves receive positive benefits for their personal health and well-being.

Research has found the values of altruism and humanitarianism to be important motivations for voluntary work, alongside gaining a practical understanding of skills and improving career prospects.5,8 Volunteering is not only a group accomplishment, but also reflects personal effort, so altruism is realised by both the individual and the community. Dr George advocates ‘intergenerational volunteering,’ which can be seen as a form of reciprocal altruism. In his own research, retired people entered schools to help children, with participants not only experiencing positive improvements to their own well-being, but also providing much-needed assistance to children. According to Dr George, “Volunteering in a school is generative – it creates value and adds to our community fabric. I think it would be interesting to examine the benefits of intergenerational interactions on children over time since there is reciprocity in that relationship.”

Holistic benefits

A wealth of research suggests that volunteering is no longer an activity that needs to be seen as entirely altruistic. By giving our time and energy to others, we can benefit too - psychologically, cognitively, socially, and physically. Volunteering is good for everyone involved, regardless of age. The question is how charities can communicate these benefits and help people help them and help themselves.

Dr Nicola Davies is a freelance journalist

1. Molsher, R. & Townsend, M. (2016). Improving wellbeing and environmental stewardship through volunteering in nature. EcoHealth, (13): 151.
2. O’Brien, L., Townsend, M. & Ebden, M. (2010). Doing something positive: Volunteers’ experiences of the well-being benefits derived from practical conservation activities in nature. Voluntas, (21): 525-545.
3. O’Brien, L., Burls, A., Townsend, M. & Ebden, M. (2011). Volunteering in nature as a way of enabling people to reintegrate into society. Perspectives in Public Health, March 131(2): 71-81. Retrieved from http://journals.sagepub.com.ezproxy.library.uq.edu.au/doi/pdf/10.1177/1757913910384048
4. Peacock, J., Hine, R. & Pretty, J. (2007). Got the blues, then find some greenspace: The mental health benefits of green exercise activities and green care. MIND Week Report, Centre for Environment and Society, University of Essex, February, 2007.
5. Qian, X.L. & Yarnal, C. (2010). Benefits of volunteering as campus tour guides: The rewards of serious leisure revisited. Leisure/Loisir, 34(2): 127-144.
6. Gallant, K., Arai, S. & Smale, B. (2013). Serious leisure as an avenue for nurturing community. Leisure Sciences, 35(4): 320-336.
7. Binder, M. (2015). Volunteering and life satisfaction: A closer look at the hypothesis that volunteering more strongly benefits the unhappy. Applied Economics Letters, 22(11): 874-885.
8. Fletcher, T.D. & Major, D.A. (2004). Medical students’ motivations to volunteer: An examination of the nature of gender differences. Sex Roles, (51): 109.
9. George, D.R. (2011). Intergenerational volunteering and quality of life: Mixed methods evaluation of a randomized control trial involving persons with mild to moderate dementia. Qual Life Res 20: 987.
10. Griep, Y., Hanson, L.M., Vantilborgh, T., Janssens, L., Jones. S.K. & Hyde M. (2017). Can volunteering in later life reduce the risk of dementia? A 5-year longitudinal study among volunteering and non-volunteering retired seniors. PLoS ONE 12(3): e0173885.
11. Smith, M., Timbrell, H., Woolvin, M., Muirhead, S. & Fyfe, N. (2010). Enlivened geographies of volunteering: Situated, embodied and emotional practices of voluntary action. Scottish Geographical Journal, 126(4): 258–274.

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