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Planning Retirement Online

Beyond the Headlines

November 2011 

By Jeanne DavisJeanne Davis

An exciting new column in Laterlife!  Each month our resident writer and commentator Jeanne Davis will go behind recent news stories to comment on various ideas and subjects that have special resonance for our age group. Written in her usual thought provoking and entertaining style, we know you will enjoy this new addition every month

 


 

People Who Volunteer Live Longer, Study Suggests

People who volunteer for selfless reasons , such as helping others, live longer than those volunteer for more self-centred reasons, a new study shows.

“This could mean that people who volunteer with other people as their main motivation may be buffeted from potential stressors associated with volunteering such as time constraints and lack of pay,” said researcher Sara Konrath of the University of Michigan

(Past research suggested another benefit for selfless volunteers – a date. Apparently women rate such altruism high on their list of desirable traits in a mate.)

The study followed 10,317 Wisconsin residents from high school graduation in 1957 until the present. In 2008, the average age of the participants was about 69.

The participants explained their reasons for volunteering or, in cases of those who had not volunteered but were planning to, the reasons they would.

Some of the participants' motives were more oriented toward others, such as “I feel it is important to help others” or “Volunteering is an important activity to the people I know best.” Other respondents, however, had more self-oriented reasons for volunteering, such as, “Volunteering is a good escape from my own troubles," or “Volunteering makes me feel better about myself.”

Researchers then compared the participants’ responses with physical health information that had been collected. The researchers also considered the respondents’ socioeconomic status, mental health, social support, marital status and health risk factors, including smoking, body mass index and alcohol use.

The findings showed that those who volunteered for more altruistic reasons had lower mortality rates as of 2008 than people who did not volunteer. Of the 2,384 non-volunteers, 4.3 percent were deceased four years later, compared with 1.6 percent of altruistic volunteers who had died.

However, people who said they volunteered for their own personal satisfaction had nearly the same mortality rate (4 percent) as people who did not volunteer at all.

“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 becomes the main reason for volunteering, they may not see those benefits,”said researcher Andrea Fuhrel-Forbis.

My own informal research into the motives for volunteering come from my work at Reach , the UK charity that places volunteers with professional skills with voluntary organisations that need those skills. Most often, the volunteer will say “I want to give something back to the community,” or “I want to use my skills for a good cause,” or “to help those who have been less fortunate than me.”

Some though will say “I need to add the experience to my CV” or “I’m looking to change careers and want to explore working in the charity sector.” Is this selfish? How is their health? Are those with selfless reasons living longer? And the selfish dying sooner?

I have recently volunteered with the London Wildlife Trust. especially to help with their educational programmes at an inner-city natural reserve. My motives! I am concerned about the environment and I am very fond of working with young children. I would like to use my knowledge and enthusiasm to help the local school children get to know the wonders of the natural world and the importance of preserving the environment. But also I want to get out into the fresh air, confined as I am much of the time to indoor city life. Is this a mix of altruistic and selfish motives?

Some of the work will find me stumbling along the trails of the nature reserve amongst thorny bushes and dense trees to spot the birds, butterflies and bats. I am prone to tripping over stones and branches and may have to ask one of the children to lend me a helping hand. Hopefully twisting an ankle will not be cut short my life chances. But maybe my selfish reasons will!

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Resource: If you would like to volunteer, see laterlife’s helpful Guide to volunteering, or click on Voluntary work in laterlife

The University of Michigan study was published in August 2011 in the journal Health Psychology.

 

 


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