Once a month, I volunteer at a meal center to help serve food to people who are in need. Prepping and serving the dinner is a busy yet fun team activity of five to six people, organized by two generous souls. Despite the many other things that I need to do, I really look forward to meeting and serving the patrons, even if only briefly.
Although my motivation begins with wanting to help others and being grateful for what I have been given, it is joy that helps bring me back when I am very busy. I first noticed this some time ago: At the end of our shift, after the kitchen and dining room have been cleaned up, I would experience a lightness of being, a sense of satisfaction and reconnection to purpose. It just feels good.
Allen Luks coined this feeling “the helper’s high”, the sense of euphoria that can be experienced soon after helping someone else. Luks defined two phases—the first characterized by that uplifted, euphoric mood; the second by a longer lasting sense of calm. The greatest effect (the high) was observed in helping strangers.1
A few years ago, as I was researching how kindness affected health, I came to learn that volunteerism was associated with a markedly lower risk of dying. Depending on the study, the decrease in death rates ranged between 20% to 60% or so. For perspective, this is huge. A good example is the introduction of clean drinking water. After water filtration and chlorination were introduced early in the 20th century, death rates from contaminated water dropped about 15% to 20%.2
The observations on volunteering come from epidemiologic studies in which populations are followed over time.3 They are complex in that people are living their lives and there are a lot of what are called “confounding variables”—different things happening at the same time. For example, people are getting married or divorced, getting or losing jobs, maybe quit smoking, or maybe eating and exercising better. In studies like this, it can be hard to sort out cause and effect. That is, maybe people who volunteer live longer simply because they are healthier and able to volunteer. And perhaps they also have financial resources (don’t have to work two jobs) that frees them to volunteer.
Scientists can try to adjust for these different life events—with reasonable consistency, studies generally report that the effects of volunteering remain after these adjustments. Following them over time also supports the idea that volunteerism reduces death. One recent and large European study found that self-reported health scores were significantly better in volunteers than in non-volunteers—the difference in scores equivalent to about five years of aging.4
How could volunteering cause a decrease in death? There are several factors at play. The first, and likely most significant, is uplifted mood, that is, lower stress. Multiple studies have provided evidence that volunteering is good for depression, well-being, and social network, among other effects.5It is entirely consistent with Luks' observations and my own microcosmic experience. Second, people who volunteer regularly also make more effort to take care of themselves, as demonstrated in visits to their doctor for preventive health care.6 Perhaps their networks are chiding them to do so.
Finally, people who volunteer may be more physically active, as seen in the Baltimore Experience Corps Trial, a study of the effect of volunteering in older adults. In that study, women (but not men) had a significant increase in walking each day compared to those who did not volunteer.7
To try to tie this together, volunteering likely exerts its positive effects on health by connecting people to others as well as to an activity that they find meaningful. Achieving connection, purpose, and meaning is critical to attenuating stressors of life—particularly loneliness. Since stress is a major cause of disease, especially heart disease, the ability to quench the need for connection, purpose, and meaning can bring about beneficial and salutary changes for people.8 And when there is purpose and we are connected to others, we take care of ourselves.
Most have heard the ancient wisdom that giving benefits the giver more than the receiver. “A generous man will prosper, he who refreshes others will himself be refreshed” from Proverbs speaks to this point. If we look at that solely from a materialistic perspective, the concept is hard to fathom. But if we look at it from a spiritual and now biologic perspective, it totally makes sense. Even many years ago, our predecessors understood this point without modern scientific techniques.
About 25% of the US population volunteers.9 What do you think would happen if we could increase that percentage?
If you can’t volunteer right now but want to get that good feeling, try looking at the images of kindness, compassion, and love. Or go out and photograph it.10 We know that even seeing kindness will give you that feeling.