Think volunteering’s just a nice thing you do for others? Think again. A growing body of research has pointed to the social, emotional, and even physical health benefits of volunteering.
The study, led by University of Pittsburgh researcher Fengyan Tang, surveyed more than 200 volunteers ages 50 or older. The volunteers were from varied socioeconomic backgrounds and had contributed an average of six hours a week to nonprofit or government programs with services ranging from legal consultation to meal preparation to helping with computer skills.
Tang and her colleagues didn’t only look at how the volunteers were helping others; they also evaluated the kind of support volunteers received from the organizations for which they were volunteering. They asked the volunteers the extent to which they were given a choice of volunteer activities, whether they had received adequate training, and whether they received ongoing support.
The researchers then followed up with the volunteers a year later, asking participants about their physical and mental health as well as the “socioemotional benefits” they thought they’d gotten out of volunteering, including their self-esteem, personal growth, and social activity. Tang and her colleagues found that the volunteers reported significant improvements in their mental health, along with other socioemotional benefits ranging from a greater feeling of productivity to increased social activity to an overall sense that their life had improved.
Importantly, the researchers found that volunteers were far more likely to enjoy these benefits when the volunteer organization gave them adequate training, ongoing support, and greater flexibility in choosing activities and schedules. What’s more, the researchers found that volunteers of low socioeconomic status reported more socioemotional benefits than did volunteers of higher socioeconomic status.
Tang and her colleagues argue that, on a society-wide level, their study highlights the importance of offering emotionally meaningful volunteer opportunities for older adults, and for giving these volunteers adequate support and freedom. In this way, older adults are able to find purpose, satisfaction, and good health later in life at the same time that they give back to society.
“With the support from host organizations,” they write, “older volunteers are able to continue their efforts and contributions and derive satisfaction and emotional well-being from their volunteer experience.”