It can be tough to feel you have the time or the resources to really help someone in need when you have all of your own obligations — but it often doesn’t take much to make a big difference in someone else’s life.
What you gain in return could be some unexpected long-term health benefits.
“Anyone who has given time, money, or other resources probably already knows this from experience,” Mitchell Popovetsky, M.D., a primary care physician at Rush University Medical Center (RUMC), said in a release.
A growing body of research sheds light on what’s behind “that helper’s high,” as well as the long-term physical and psychological benefits that may follow. Scans that detect neurological activity find that the mesolimbic system — the part of the brain responsible for feelings of reward or pleasure — lights up in a donor’s brain after donations are made.
Research also links giving to the following greater qualities of life, said Popvetsky:
1.) Self-esteem and satisfaction. Volunteering for organizations and informally helping loved ones can lead to greater self-esteem, life satisfaction, and sense of purpose. Younger adults may not benefit as much, as they are more likely to volunteer out of obligation, according to researchers. But a sense of purpose is often gained by volunteers of all ages.
“When I was a stressed-out medical student, I helped start an organization that connected medical students with older adults who needed help navigating the health care system,” said Popovetsky. “It was one of the most satisfying things I did in medical school. It gave me a feeling of making a direct impact.”
2.) Lower risk of depression. Knowing you’ve genuinely helped someone else and given of yourself may decrease your risk of depression, sadness, or lack of energy. It may also give you more of a sense of personal control over your life and help you recovery more quickly from a personal tragedy, such as the loss of a spouse.
3.) Better physical health. A lower risk of depression can mean a lower risk for heart disease and other related health conditions. One 2013 study, RUMC points out, divided 100 high school students into a group of volunteers and a group of nonvolunteers. They all had equal body mass index (BMI) and cholesterol levels at the beginning of the study. Yet afterward, those who volunteered once a week for two months ended up with lower LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and a lower average BMI.
Researchers believe those who benefited psychologically from volunteering also saw the physical improvements, as the factors have all been linked in previous studies. Older volunteers tend to reap physical and psychological rewards such as less belly fat, better cholesterol levels, and lower blood sugar
4.) A longer life. Adults with heart disease who spend up to 200 hours helping others over the course of a year may be less likely to have a heart attack or die in the following two years, one study found. Other research has linked volunteering one to two hours a week with the most optimal health benefits for older adults.
“Volunteering provides many older people with a deep sense of meaning,” Patricia Boyle, Ph.D., a Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center neuropsychologist who led that research, told rush.edu. “Working toward a goal and feeling like you are making a contribution to society likely increases your sense of purpose in life, which we have found contributes to both psychological and physical health.”