Is volunteering good for you? People volunteer to benefit others, but there has been some debate over whether volunteer activities also benefit the volunteers. A multi-country European study found that volunteering is associated with better self-rated health and also household income when compared to people who don't volunteer. The volunteers had a health score which was equivalent to being 5 years younger than those who did not volunteer.
People were interviewed and asked “How is your health in general?” The participants could choose from five categories ranging from “very bad” to “very good” - so the people themselves rated their health. This way how people rated their own health might include “physical, mental and social well-being", thus including health indicators that are hard to measure - such as pain, suffering, or depression. The researchers found that volunteer activities are also associated with a higher household income, but note that other studies find that a higher household income is associated with better health. All these are associations in this study - can't say that one causes the other (causal). The researchers themselves say that after analyzing the data, the results show that the association between volunteering and self-rated health is stronger (a "direct association") than the "indirect" association with household income.
The overall rate of people participating in volunteer activities was 24.1%., while 75.9% did not participate in volunteer activities, but this varied from country to country. For example, in Germany, the Netherlands and Norway more than 40% of people volunteered, but in Bulgaria, Hungary and Lithuania fewer than 10% engaged in volunteering activities. From Science Daily:
Volunteers are in better health than non-volunteers
Researchers of Ghent University analysed data on volunteering, employment and health of more than 40,000 European citizens. Their results, just published in PLOS ONE, show that volunteering is associated with better employment and health outcomes. Even after controlling for other determinants of health (gender, age, education level, migrant status, religiosity and country of origin), volunteers are substantially in better health than non-volunteers. Doctoral researcher Jens Detollenaere: “This association is comparable in size to the health gains of being a man, being five years younger or being a native (compared to being a migrant).”....Volunteers have, after controlling for the aforementioned personal characteristics, a higher income and this higher income is associated with better health.
The researchers put forward three other explanations for an association between volunteering and health. Professor Sara Willems: “Firstly, volunteering may improve access to psychological resources (such as self-esteem and self-efficacy) and social resources (such as social integration and access to support and information), both of which are found to have an overall positive effect on health. Secondly, volunteering increases physical and cognitive activity, which protects against functional decline and dementia in old age. Finally, neuroscience research has related volunteering to the release of the caregiving-related hormones oxytocin and progesterone, which have the capacity to regulate stress and inflammation.”
The research results are based on data from the sixth round of the European Social Survey (conducted in 2012 and 2013). This survey measures the beliefs, preferences and behaviour of more than 40000 citizens of 29 European countries....[Original study.]