The top line: People who volunteer or simply care for others on a consistent basis seem to be happier and less depressed. This seems to be especially true in older individuals.
Most people who care for others in a selfless manner do so because of a genuine desire to help and improve the world around them. Nonetheless, modern sociological research has shown that caring has benefits for all involved; people who volunteer or care for others on a consistent basis tend to have better mental well-being, including fewer depressive symptoms and higher life-satisfaction.
Although “caring” can involve volunteering as part of an organized group or club, it can be as simple as reaching out to a workmate or classmate who looks lonely or is struggling with an issue. Studies show that people who reach out like this, even for as little as 2-3 hours per week, can benefit in multiple ways. Of the many different ways in which individuals care for others, organized volunteering is the most widely studied form in the scientific literature. The majority of studies agree that there is a very significant association between volunteering and psychological well-being. Several studies have found that this correlation appears to be highest in older adults (Morrow-Howell et al., 2003; Wheeler et al., 1998). The same level of correlation has not been found in younger adults as a whole. Yet, a subgroup of younger adults who engage in sustained volunteering over long periods of time do in fact have higher levels of mental well-being (Wheeler et al., 1998). The authors of this study speculated that many young adults who volunteer for short periods of time may have been encouraged to volunteer by their schools or did so to boost their chances of getting into college. In contrast, older volunteers tend to cite moral responsibility. This suggests that “intrinsically motivated” volunteers, ie those who are more motivated for the sake of volunteering itself, feel more satisfaction than “extrinsically motivated” volunteers (Midlarsky, Kahana, 1993). One more intriguing set of data reveals that the recipients of volunteer activities who were encouraged to participate or cooperate in some way, tended to experience greater happiness. In contrast to this, those who passively received the benefits did not become significantly happier, and in some cases became more depressed. As is true for other areas of research, it is considerably more difficult to prove that volunteering causes improved mental well-being than to simply identify an association between the two. At least one study, however, has attempted to do so with a prospective, randomized trial (Yuen et al., 2008). The authors of this study randomly assigned a population of older adults into one of two groups: a group that volunteered for three months, and a control group that did not. At the end of the trial, the researchers found that those who volunteered scored higher on indices of mental well-being than those who did not. These effects persisted three months after the end of the trial, indicating that the benefits of volunteering may be long-lasting.
A Personal Experience: Dust, Drudgery and Bliss
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