Volunteering is not only good for your community, but also your mental health

Posted on May 31, 2016

Photo: flickr

In 2011, Daniel George conducted a randomised trial with 30 adults in Ohio with mild to moderate dementia. Half the adults spent an hour every two weeks helping young school children with reading, writing and history. The control group were assigned to not do any voluntary work. At the end of the five-month study, stress was lowered more in the adults who helped than in the adults who didn’t. Ina similar study, it was found that volunteer work seemed to improve things such as mental function, physical activity, strength and stress. However, doing the wrong sort of volunteering – where the volunteer stands the risk of verbal or physical abuse – can be detrimental to the person’s well-being. Equally, some volunteer work can be detrimental to the people the volunteer is trying to help.

In another study, researchers asked 52 high school students in Canada to volunteer once a week, helping younger students with their homework, sports and other after school activities. For comparison, a control group of 54 students did no volunteer work over the same period. The researchers then took biomarkers such as blood samples and body mass and, at the end of the study, the adolescents who did the volunteer work had greater reductions in all of the biomarkers associated with cardiovascular disease than those in the control group. They also lost more weight.

It could be argued that volunteering has this effect because it is physical hence helps improve one's fitness. But merely connecting with people has health benefits too. Volunteering may also reduce stress by taking your mind off problems and helping you relax.

There could also be an evolutionary mechanism. Parts of the brain linked to dopamine and serotonin production seem to be activated in people who donate money. Our ancient ancestors who helped each other were more likely to survive, so received a dopamine “high” in exchange for altruistic behaviour. Dopamine doesn’t just make us feel good, it is also used as medicine for treating low blood pressure, heart disease, Parkinson’s, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and drug addiction.

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Source material from PsyPost

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