Volunteering can boost physical and mental health

Doctors should recommend to patients that they donate time in their communities, says the author of a new study.

By — Posted Jan. 17, 2012

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At a time when financial hardships and unemployment are causing stress among many Americans, primary care physicians should discuss with patients the physical and mental health benefits of volunteering, says the author of a recent report.

The report, which was published in the December 2011 issue of The International Journal of Person Centered Medicine, found that people who give back to others lead more happy and healthy lives than those who do not volunteer.

"People in general are happier and healthier, and may even live a little longer, when they're contributing" to their community or an organization they are passionate about, said study author Stephen G. Post, PhD. He is director of the Center for Medical Humanities, Compassionate Care and Bioethics at Stony Brook University School of Medicine in New York. "The research on the benefits of giving is extremely powerful, to the point that suggests health care professionals should consider recommending such activities to patients."

Post encourages primary care physicians to ask patients 12 and older during office visits if they volunteer in their communities. For those who do not volunteer, doctors should suggest they consider doing so, he said.

Volunteering is particularly beneficial for patients with mild to moderate depression, the elderly and those with chronic diseases and substance abuse problems, he said.

"Just by taking a vacation from your stress and problems and turning your attention to helping someone else, it's a tremendously healthy thing," Post said. He added that volunteers often develop friendships and feel a sense of satisfaction that they are making a difference.

The report is the fifth annual article in which Post examines the most recent research on the health impact of altruism (link). The report reviewed more than 50 studies published in the past four decades on the connection between altruism and physical and mental well-being.

Post said one of the key studies in 2011 was a UnitedHealthcare survey of 4,582 U.S. adults 18 and older on their attitudes about volunteering and its impact. The survey found that 68% of volunteers said donating time to their communities has made them feel physically healthier and 27% said giving back has helped them manage a chronic illness.

A majority said their activities enrich their sense of purpose in life and lower stress levels. The survey also showed that those who give back are less likely to feel hopeless and lonely than people who do not volunteer.

"There's no reason why physicians shouldn't talk to patients about [volunteering]," Post said.

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