Volunteering and human flourishing
From an article by Psychology Today
Tyler VanderWeele is a Professor of Epidemiology and the Director of the Human Flourishing Program at Harvard University. They recently published research on the health benefits of volunteering.
Healthy communities are marked by a high degree of “social trust,” a general sense that their members are not simply pursuing their own narrow good, but are willing to look out for one another as well. In such societies, neighbours rake one another’s leaves and strangers watch over one another’s laptops in coffee shops. People in communities with strong social trust tend to volunteer their time at relatively high rates, both directly benefiting those they serve, and also indirectly encouraging such generosity in others.
Volunteering and other expressions of social trust clearly promote the common good, in the sense of “the sum of those conditions of social life which allow social groups and their individual members relatively thorough and ready access to their own fulfilment.”. Volunteering benefits the community being served, and also can help bring about social trust, which of course in turn can benefit the volunteers themselves. However, it also turns out that volunteering benefits the volunteers in yet further ways than one might expect.
In their research, they used data on about 13,000 older adults in the Health and Retirement Study, with eight years of data on each participant. They examined, for example, how volunteering in 2010 was related to subsequent health and well-being in 2014, controlling for those same health and well-being outcomes in 2006, along with a vast range of social, demographic, and behavioural characteristics.
Participants who volunteered at least two hours per week (compared with not at all) subsequently had higher levels of happiness, optimism, and purpose in life, and more contact with friends; they also had lower levels of depressive symptoms, hopelessness, and loneliness, fewer perceived physical discomforts and disabilities, and more physical activity. They were also notably less likely to die in the four years of follow-up – about 40% less so!
For many, engaging in volunteering can be a powerful way to contribute to the good of others, to the community, to the common good, and to the good of the person volunteering as well.
Of course, most people typically do not volunteer simply to improve their own health and well-being. Rather, they hope to contribute to the lives of others, to the community – to the common good. It might thus seem somewhat surprising then that there appear to be effects on one’s own health and well-being also. How are we to understand this?
While this extends beyond the data we have, one possibility is that volunteering itself – the long-term sustained attempt to systematically help others and help one’s community – may in turn help shape one’s character and one’s orientation towards the good. This itself may go on to contribute to a number of health and well-being outcomes. Certain aspects of character (such as the measure in the research on “I always act to promote good in all circumstances, even in difficult and challenging situations”) are strongly associated with numerous health and well-being outcomes over time.
Another possibility for the effects of volunteering on well-being is that volunteering often involves sustained engagement with a community both of volunteers and of those served, and may thereby provide opportunities to build strong loving relationships. Love is not just seeking to do good to others; it is also seeking to come to know them, and to be with them. By creating sustained communities, volunteering might thus also provide opportunities for the formation of good and loving relationships.
Regardless of what the explanations might be, the evidence for important effects of volunteering seems sufficiently strong that, a few years ago, Dr Stephen Post published an article recommending a “prescription” of volunteering for two hours a week.
Read the full article here.
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