The Bible says, “More blessings come from giving than from receiving“ (Acts 20:35, CEV). And it’s true: there is something gratifying about volunteering. The Greek philosopher Aristotle once noted that the essence of life is “to serve others and do good.“ If research is any indication, serving others might also be the essence of good health.
Studies suggest that those who volunteer their time to help others feel more socially connected and experience less loneliness and depression. However, the benefits are not only for social and emotional health. Studies show that tangible benefits for physical health are also noted, such as lower blood pressure and longer lifespan.1, 2
Here is some scientific evidence that highlights the health benefits of service:
• In a recent study, people who volunteered for at least 200 hours each year were 40 percent less likely to develop hypertension than those who did not volunteer. The specific type of volunteer activity did not seem to be a factor, but the amount of time spent volunteering led to increased protection from hypertension. Other studies have found that volunteering for as little as 100 hours annually has similar benefits.3
• One key for deriving health benefits from volunteering is to do it for the right reasons. A study found that participants who volunteered with some regularity lived longer, but only if their intentions were truly altruistic. Thus, they had to be volunteering to help others, not simply to make themselves feel better.4
• Not surprisingly, volunteers and non-volunteers in general tend to spend their time in very similar ways, including during work, leisure, and other activities. However, volunteers give up more than one hour of TV per day to engage in service. On average, those who have never volunteered watch 436 more hours of television each year than volunteers.5
• According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only about a quarter of the population aged 16 and older volunteered in 2009, and those who volunteered were most often Caucasian, female, college-educated, and between the ages of 35 and 55. In fact, the most likely person to volunteer is a woman with a job and children.6
Every week consists of 168 hours. How many of those hours do you dedicate to service? I have good news! In your ministry as an elder, you likely spend time visiting individuals and families, listening to their needs, praying with them, or giving Bible studies. The hours you dedicate to serving God and others in this capacity count as volunteer work! Seek to combine family time with volunteer service, and the benefit will be maximized.
Many of the current studies on volunteering emphasize that mentally stimulating activities, such as tutoring or reading, may help to maintain memory and thinking skills, while volunteer activities that promote physical activity may be beneficial for cardiovascular health.
If you can manage time outside your role as an elder, consider what community service you may be able to do. Albert Schweitzer, a theologian-physician, once said, “The only ones among you who will be really happy are those who will have sought and found how to serve.“ Spending even a few hours each week in community service will not just benefit the people you serve; the benefits will also be returned to you, mostly in overall health and well-being. Perhaps that’s what Luke 6:9 means when it reminds us to “give away your life; you’ll find life given back [. . .] with bonus and blessing“ (The Message).
1 Rodlescia S. Sneed and Sheldon Cohen, “A Prospective Study of Volunteerism and Hypertension Risk in Older Adults,” in Psychology and Aging, June 2013, 28(2), 578-586.
2 Sara Konrath, Andrea Fuhrel-Forbis, et al. “Motives for Volunteering Are Associated with Mortality Risk in Older Adults,” in Health Psychology, Jan. 2012, 31(1), 87-96.
3 Sneed and Cohen.
4 Konrath, Fuhrel-Forbis, et al.
5 Volunteering in America research brief (2008). “How Do Volunteers Find the Time? Evidence from the American Time Use Study.“ Retrieved October 8, 2012 from http://www.volunteeringinamerica.gov/assets/resour... ATUS_Brief.pdf.
6 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (Feb. 22, 2012). “Volunteering in the United States, 2011.” Retrieved October 8, 2012, from http:// www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/volun.pdf.
Katia Reinert is director of the Health Ministries Department for the North American Division.