Volunteering with the purpose of helping others provides the volunteer with health benefits that are associated with longer life. Research has shown that social interaction improves health and that volunteering, in particular, increases psychological and physical well-being. But volunteers may be motivated to help others or to help themselves (examples of self-serving volunteering include self-promotion and career enhancement). Researchers from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and the University of Rochester, in New York, wanted to explore whether the motivation for volunteering affects the degree of beneficial influence.
They reviewed data from the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study, looking at surveys from more than 10,000 male and female Wisconsin high-school graduates since 1957. Study subjects had answered questions regarding whether they volunteered, how many hours per month, motives for volunteering, demographic variables, physical and mental health status, risk factors and personality traits.
Data analysis showed that 4 years later, only 1.6% of volunteers whose motivations were more focused on others had died, compared with 4.3% of nonvolunteers. The number of volunteers who reported self-oriented reasons for volunteering had the same proportion of deaths as those who did not volunteer at all.
Lead study author, Sara Konrath, PhD, from the University of Michigan, said, “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.” Study authors noted that, ironically, organizations encourage individuals to volunteer in part for personal benefits, yet research shows that if self-centered motivations are dominant, the health benefits of volunteering may not be realized.
The study appeared in Health Psychology (2011; doi: 10.1037/a0025226), the online journal of the American Psychological Association.