When a person volunteers to help others, the action may lead to a longer life if the motive is truly to assist others, rather than helping oneself.
According to researchers, this is the first study to show volunteers’ motives can have a significant impact on life span.
Investigators discovered volunteers lived longer than people who didn’t volunteer if they reported altruistic values or a desire for social connections as the main reasons for wanting to volunteer.
The study is published in the American Psychological Association’s online journal Health Psychology.
Researchers discovered people who said they volunteered for their own personal satisfaction had the same mortality rate four years later as people who did not volunteer at all.
“This could mean that people who volunteer with other people as their main motivation may be buffered from potential stressors associated with volunteering, such as time constraints and lack of pay,” said the study’s lead author, Sara Konrath, Ph.D., of the University of Michigan.
Subjects and data came from the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study – an ongoing research effort following a random sample of 10,317 Wisconsin high school students from their graduation in 1957 until the present.
The sample is 51.6 percent female, with an average age of 69.16 years in 2008.
In 2004, respondents reported whether they had volunteered within the past 10 years and how regularly.
They reported their reasons for volunteering (or the reasons they would volunteer, for those who had not done so) by answering 10 questions.
Some motives were more oriented toward others (e.g., “I feel it is important to help others,” or “Volunteering is an important activity to the people I know best”) and some that were more self-oriented (e.g., “Volunteering is a good escape from my own troubles,” or “Volunteering makes me feel better about myself”).
As a part of the data analysis, researchers studied the respondents’ physical health, socioeconomic status, marital status, health risk factors (i.e., smoking, body mass index and alcohol use), mental health and social support.
A majority of this information was collected in 1992, 12 years before the respondents were asked about their volunteering experience. The researchers then determined how many of the respondents were still alive in 2008.
Overall, 4.3 percent of 2,384 non-volunteers were deceased four years later, which was similar to the proportion of deceased volunteers who reported more self-oriented motives for volunteering (4 percent).
However, only 1.6 percent of those volunteers whose motivations were more focused on others were dead four years later. This effect remained significant even when controlling for all the variables.
Additionally, respondents who listed social connection or altruistic values as their predominant motive were more likely to be alive compared with non-volunteers.
“It is reasonable for people to volunteer in part because of benefits to the self; however, our research implies that, ironically, should these benefits to the self become the main motive for volunteering, they may not see those benefits,” said the paper’s co-author, Andrea Fuhrel-Forbis.