Turns out charity work and volunteering have deeper benefits than you might realize — not just for those around you, but for you. Having lots of social support elevates mood and improves health.
The way you interact with your social network also improves your health. One study found that people who provided “social support” that is, volunteered or otherwise gave back to their communities lowered their blood pressure and mean arterial pressure (average pressure in a patient’s arteries during a cardiac cycle).
Those are two big-time predictors of heart problems. So when you offer social support, you’re also stoking your self-esteem and reducing odds of depression and stress. Plus, givers are more likely to receive social support from others when they're in need.
These findings are no surprise to N. Charles Anderson. You might say “giving” is his life’s work. The president and CEO of Urban League of Detroit and Southeastern Michigan
is always considering ways to help his community, including teaching people how to help themselves.
“Our goal is to assist in the areas of employment, health and youth development,” he says. That covers a lot of ground.
Anderson and others work on a variety of social-service fronts, including access to affordable, nutritious food, encouraging high schoolers to reach for college and helping mature job hunters to re-enter the workforce.
There are countless ways to help because there are countless people who need help. “Not too many people here suffer from affluenza,” Anderson says with a rueful laugh. Without givers and doers like Anderson, society would come unglued. Charitable giving and volunteering make our world better.
Research also shows that Anderson’s work is actually good for Anderson, too – and he knows it. “I think all of us, myself too, get a sense of accomplishment from making a contribution, a sense that we really helped someone,” he says. “It’s great to give back without asking anything in return.”
Anderson understands the emotional benefit, but the advantages of volunteering can also be physical. When you give to the people around you, you also help yourself – with positive impacts on your mood, health and possibly even your life span. Here are the ways it can help:
Lighten your mood
Volunteers often see lots of depressing things: hunger, poverty, trauma. Still, their work actually uplifts them, according to a National Institutes of Health study. Scientists found that giving to causes you care about rewards the same parts of your brain that respond to getting.
That same tingle of happiness you feel when you open a gift can be recreated by acting on behalf of others, research published in the “Journal of Health and Social Behavior” suggests. Knowing you have a positive effect on other people, affirms that you, too, matter.
Volunteering and charitable work can be stressful, of course, but there’s a particular kind of stress you should avoid. That’s the shame of being stingy.
Research published in the “Journal of Health Psychology” suggests that being stingy can actually raise your levels of cortisol – a stress hormone that interferes with learning, weakens memory, undermines your immune response, causes weight gain and even lowers bone density. That’s a lot of damage for one little hormone.
Enhance your life span
The more good you do, the more time you’ll have to do more good – or so the research suggests. An analysis of more than 40 studies found that volunteers tend to have lower risk of mortality, regardless of their age. Indeed, a study of California residents over age 55 showed that “high volunteers” – those who did a lot of charitable work – had a 63 percent lower mortality rate than nonvolunteers, even when accounting for differences such as exercise and smoking.
It builds on itself
The more good you do, the more good you’ll continue to do. That’s because the simple act of reflecting on what psychologists call prosocial behavior – actions that make a positive impact on others around you – can lead to volunteering and donating more time and money. Once you start, you might not want to stop. That’s good news for you and those around you.
HAP employee volunteers donated more than 1,396 hours of community service in 2016.
HAP executives serve the community by sitting on the boards of 22 local nonprofit agencies.
For more information on the Urban League of Detroit and Southeastern Michigan go to: deturbanleague.org.