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Volunteering time and money may be good for our health

The volunteering of time must be done for altruistic reasons — to help others, not just to improve your own health and well-being.

Have you put “live a healthier lifestyle” on or near the top of your New Year’s resolutions list? If so, you may want to expand your strategies for accomplishing that goal beyond the usual “eat more healthful foods” and “exercise more.”

For a growing body of research — including two recently published studies — suggests that people who volunteer their time, or even their money, to a cause they care about tend to lead healthier lives. 

There’s a catch, though. The volunteering of time must be done for altruistic reasons — to help others, not just to improve your own health and well-being.

And being generous with money appears to have the greatest effect on the giver’s health when the money is spent on close friends and family.

Generosity and blood pressure

In an article published Saturday in the Washington Post, Ashley Whillans, a graduate student in social and health psychology at the University of British Columbia, writes about a study she and her colleagues conducted to determine if donating money has any effect on physical health.

Writes Whillans:

We gave 128 older adults (ages 65-85) $40 a week for three weeks. Half of our participants were randomly assigned to spend the money on themselves, and half were told to spend it on others. We told participants to spend their $40 payment all in one day and to save the receipts from the purchases they had made.

We measured participants’ blood pressure before, during and after they spent their study payments. We chose to examine blood pressure in this study because we can measure it reliably in the lab, and because high blood pressure is a significant health outcome — having chronically elevated blood pressure (hypertension) is responsible for 7.5 million premature deaths each year.

Among participants who were previously diagnosed with high blood pressure, spending money on others significantly reduced their blood pressure over the course of the study. Critically, the magnitude of these effects was comparable to the benefits of interventions, such as anti-hypertensive medication and exercise.

The participants who were previously diagnosed with high blood pressure (N=73), and who were assigned to spend money on themselves, showed no change in blood pressure during the study. As expected, for people who didn’t have high blood pressure, there was no benefit from spending money on others.

Interestingly, we found tentative evidence that how people spent their money mattered for promoting the benefits of financial generosity. People seemed to benefit most from spending money on others they felt closest to. This finding is consistent with previous research from our lab showing that people derive the most satisfaction from spending money on others when they splurge on close friends and family.

Limitations — and a warning

Of course, this study comes with several important caveats. To begin with, it involved a small number of people, a small amount of money and a short period of time.

“We don’t know a lot about how or how much people should spend on others to enjoy long-lasting health benefits,” writes Whillans. “Indeed, research suggests that the positive benefits of new circumstances can disappear quickly. Thus, to sustain the health benefits of financial generosity, it might be necessary to engage in novel acts of financial generosity, while prioritizing people that you are closest to.”

Whillans also offers this warning: “Financial generosity might not always benefit health. Drawing from research on caregiving, financial generosity might provide benefits only when it does not incur overwhelming personal costs. After reading this article, you probably should think twice before donating your entire life savings to charity, because the stress of helping so extensively could undermine any potential benefits.”

Volunteering and health decisions

In an article that appeared online last weekend in The Atlantic, Dr. James Hamblin, a senior editor at that publication, describes the findings from another recent study, which investigated how volunteering time to a cause affects people’s decision about their health:

[Eric Kim of Harvard University and Sara Konrath of Indiana University’s Lilly Family School of Philanthropy] studied 7,168 Americans over age 50, only some of whom did volunteer work in their communities. After adjusting for a wide range of confounding variables, they found that over a two-year-period, volunteers were more likely to get flu shots, mammograms, Pap smears, cholesterol tests, and prostate exams. Most importantly, volunteering was associated with 38 percent fewer nights spent in the hospital.

And, yes, Kim and Konrath did realize that the explanation for their study’s finding might be that unhealthy people volunteer less than healthy people. That’s why they controlled for such a long list of possible confounding factors, including, writes Hamblin, “isolating sociodemographic factors like age, gender, race, ethnicity, marital status, educational attainment, financial wealth, and health insurance status,” as well as “health behaviors, social integration, stress, positive psychological factors, personality factors, chronic illnesses, and health status.”

They still found that volunteering was associated with more positive decision-making about personal health.

“What this shows is that volunteers make decisions about their health that are different from non-volunteers,” Konrath told Hamblin. “One way to think about this is that when we care for ourselves, in a fundamental way, it allows us to care for others.”

‘An important wrinkle’

But, as Hamblin points out, “there is an important wrinkle in applying this information.” Prior research by Konrath has revealed, he writes, “that people who volunteered for ‘self-oriented’ motives like ‘I need to get away from my problems’ had a mortality risk that was similar to non-volunteers.”

“So, don’t volunteer for you own health,” Hamblin warns. Or if you do, volunteer for a cause you really care about.

For “even if you go into volunteering for the wrong reasons,” he writes, “it’s hard to stay self-interested once you’re immersed in a case and woven into the lives of people who need you.”

FMI: You can read Hamblin’s article on The Atlantic website. You’ll find an abstract of Kim and Konrath’s study in the Jan. 2016 issue of Social Science and Medicine. Whillans’ article can be read in on the Washington Post’s website, and her study, which is scheduled to be published in the journal Health Psychology, can be read in full online.

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