Joe* did not want to get up one morning. He had tossed and turned overnight and awakened with a headache. But he had a 10 am appointment at the senior center with Yuka to help her learn English. So he threw off the covers and got on with his day—a boon to Yuka, but to himself, perhaps even more so.
This is one of several anecdotes that Dr. Eve Markowitz Preston, a clinical psychologist specializing in the elderly, shared with me. While it’s no secret that volunteering helps both recipients and the wider community, less well-known are the benefits to the givers themselves, specifically opportunities for learning new things, increased self-esteem, social connection with others, warding off isolation and depression, staying physically active, and having fun.
Research has found that volunteers can live longer, function better physically, and be less depressed than nongivers. Citing a WebMD article, Dr. Preston noted that altruistic people tend to have lower levels of stress-related “fight or flight” hormones, which are associated with diminished immune-system functioning and certain cardiovascular issues, as well as abnormal cell changes linked to premature aging. “Cultivating a positive emotional state through pro-social behaviors—being generous—may lengthen your life,” Dr. Stephen G. Post, a bioethics professor at Case Western Reserve University, says in the article.
So what does this mean for the Engage community? Giving of oneself for another person or a cause may be especially beneficial for people in midlife and beyond, due to the role changes and losses that occur in these stages. A volunteer position can help a person feel needed, wanted, and counted upon, long after the need to punch in at the office or keep a family on schedule has passed.
Dr. Preston has often noticed the benefits of having a sense of purpose and a calling outside of oneself. “I miss work, achievement, accomplishing something!” a 90-year-old patient told her recently. Now he’s taking steps toward leading a workshop and discussion group at his assisted living facility. “I work with others who have volunteered at libraries, coached foreign visitors in English conversation, and organized day trips for peers,” Dr. Preston said. “It’s almost impossible to feel lonely or insignificant if one considers all the needs in a city like New York...the possibilities are endless.”
Indeed, study in the Journal of Social Science and Medicine found that “the more people volunteered, the happier they were,“ according to a report by Harvard Health Publications. Almost everyone seeks happiness, and volunteering can place it within reach!
This article was originally published in the fall 2015 Engage Connect printed newsletter.
*Some of the names in this article have been changed to protect the anonymity of patients.