We’ve long known that helping others can be good for both mental and physical health. From volunteering and caregiving to helping someone cross the street, these acts can help us fight off disease and improve our overall well-being.
However, new research suggests that not all acts of kindness are created equally. We may benefit more from spontaneous acts of goodwill compared to pre-existing, scheduled commitments, such as volunteering at a local food bank or showing up to work to care for your patients.
Find out how helping others can affect your health.
Volunteering in the Era of COVID-19
Good will is on the rise in the U.S. and abroad. Studies showed that the value of volunteering is going up. Current estimates suggest that every hour of work volunteers complete is worth about $27.20, which is up about 7% from years prior.
According to the most recent figures released in 2018 by the Corporation for National and Community Service, about 77.4 million people in the United States volunteered about 6.9 billion hours of their time, talent, and effort to improve and strengthen their communities, which contributed around $187.7 billion to our nation’s economy.
The spread of the coronavirus has upended these trends in more ways than one. In-person volunteer events have gone the way of the dinosaur. Instead of recruiting individuals on the street, organizers are stuck at home putting on virtual events for their networks of volunteers. However, that doesn’t mean people aren’t anxious to help. Millions of residents are now unemployed or working from home, which gives them more time and energy to volunteer. Some can help without leaving their houses, while others are still showing up in person.
According to a new report from Mobilize, an online volunteer platform, the website recorded 1,325,560 total shifts in the first three months of the pandemic in the U.S. (March 8 to June 8). The weekly shift volume during the pandemic was higher than any week in 2019. These shifts were often focused on training, fundraising, phone banking, and virtual organizing.
Overall, 18,484 events were created between March 8 and June 8, and 23% of them were hosted by volunteers. The website also found that 68% of supporters who signed up between March 8 and June 8 were women.
The Science Behind Doing Good
Scientists have been studying the effects of volunteering and helping others for years. Evidence shows people who engage in helping others tend to be happier and healthier than those who don’t.
During the pandemic, volunteers say they felt compelled to help as a way of coping with their own feelings. Assisting others can also create feelings of solidarity at a time when everyone is stuck at home. Helping others can also give some people a sense of control over their surroundings, especially if they feel as if they are making a difference in the world.
On a biological level, helping others can lead to what’s known as the “helper’s high,” when dopamine and endorphin are released into the brain.
Medical studies also show that the saliva of compassionate people contains increased immunoglobulin A, which is an antibody that fights off infection. Brain scans also suggest that do-gooders tend to be calmer, experience less stress, and can better manage their emotions compared to those who don’t engage regularly with others.
Why Are Some Acts Better Than Others?
A new study published in the journal Psychological Bulletin suggests that not all acts of kindness affect our health in the same ways. The overall benefit depends on the type of deed, how people define their wellbeing, as well as the volunteer’s age, gender, and other demographics.
A group of researchers at the University of Hong Kong measured “prosocial behavior,” which includes altruism, trust, and cooperation, with the person’s overall well-being. They noticed a slight uptick in health in those that regularly engage in prosocial behavior.
When we see someone that needs help, it forces us to engage with another person. Helping people spontaneously can also be more unpredictable and satisfying than regular shifts at a phone bank. Regular caregiving and volunteering can become monotonous, which is why random acts of kindness can be so refreshing.
Younger volunteers appeared to gain the most psychologically from their experiences, while older volunteers seem to benefit more on a physical level. Women also demonstrated a stronger connection between prosocial behavior and positive wellbeing, compared to men. We tend to associate women with caregiving more than men. The study suggests that women may feel more fulfilled after helping others because this behavior fits with established social norms.
Clearly, helping others can have a positive effect on our health. This research furthers our understanding of the psychological and physical benefits of volunteering. The more empathy we show towards others, the better off society will be. Companies and organizations can use this data to improve the health and well-being of their teams. Consider setting aside more time to do good in your community and watch out for everyday opportunities to help others.