Newspapers started writing about Betty Lowe when she was 96 years old. Despite being long past retirement age, she was still volunteering at a cafe at Salford Royal Hospital in Greater Manchester, UK, serving coffee, washing dishes and chatting to patients. Then Lowe turned 100. “Still volunteers at hospital”, the headlines ran. Then she reached 102 and the headlines declared: “Still volunteering”. The same again when she turned 104. Even at 106, Lowe would work at the cafe once a week, despite her failing eyesight.
Lowe told the reporters who interviewed her that the reason she kept working at the cafe long after most people would have chosen to put their feet up was because she believed volunteering kept her healthy. And she was probably right. Science reveals that altruistic behaviours, from formal volunteering and monetary donations to random acts of everyday kindness, promote wellbeing and longevity.
Studies show, for instance, that volunteering correlates with a 24% lower risk of early death – about the same as eating six or more servings of fruits and vegetables each day, according to some studies. What’s more, volunteers have a lower risk of high blood glucose, and a lower risk of the inflammation levels connected to heart disease. They also spend 38% fewer nights in hospitals than people who shy from involvement in charities.
And these health-boosting impacts of volunteering appear to be found in all corners of the world, from Spain and Egypt to Uganda and Jamaica, according to one study based on the data from the Gallup World Poll.
Of course, it could be that people who are in better health to begin with are simply more likely to be in a position to pick up volunteering. If you are suffering from severe arthritis, for example, the chances are you won’t be keen to sign up to work at a soup kitchen.
“There is research suggesting that people who are in better health are more likely to volunteer, but because scientists are very well aware of that, in our studies we statistically control for that,” says Sara Konrath, a psychologist and philanthropy researcher at Indiana University.
Even when scientists remove the effects of pre-existing health, the impacts of volunteering on wellbeing still remain strong. What’s more, several randomised lab experiments shed light on the biological mechanisms through which helping others can boost our health. [Continue reading…]