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The Health Benefits of Volunteering

Think giving back only benefits the other person? Here’s 10 ways donating your time to others actually enriches your life, too.
The Health Benefits of Volunteering

Researchers at the University of Exeter in the UK reviewed 40 studies from the past 20 years and found those who gave up their time were 22 percent less likely to die. In fact, even when external factors like medical history and social support network were taken into consideration, volunteering still reduces your risk of death by 25 percent, according to a study in Psychology and Aging. But you only score the life-lengthening perks if you’re giving up your time for the benefit of others, according to a report in Health Psychology that found, over the four-year study period, those who were driven to offer up by self-oriented motives had the same likelihood of dying as those who didn't even sign up.

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An early study in the American Journal of Health Education used a national survey to determine that, compared to non-volunteers, those who gave up their time for any cause were 1.8 times more likely to meet the CDC guidelines for physical activity. And in fact, a recent survey from the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society found that nearly a quarter of people who volunteer say the experience helped them become more physically fit and 75 percent agree that it's a great way to tone up. The real perk is in offering to help the environment—volunteers for these causes were a whopping 2.6 times more likely to be physically fit. And that’s a long-lasting perk: According to researchers in New York, middle-aged folks who volunteered with outdoor organizations were more active and physically healthy over 20 years than those who didn’t offer their time.

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If you want to make a career move but can't gain applicable experience at your current job, offer your services for a non-profit that needs someone to run their campaign, handle their social media accounts, or help with community outreach. You won’t get compensated for your time, but in a study by LinkedIn, 41 percent of employers said they considered volunteer work to be as important as paid work, and 20 percent said they had made a hiring decision based on a candidate's volunteer work. It’s like the perks of an internship—except by donating your time and skills, you also score all the other benefits on this list.

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Okay, technically, you have the same amount of time (sorry, we all only get 24 hours every day). However, research out of Harvard found that if you volunteer your time you’ll actually feel like you have more of it compared to wasting your time, spending it on yourself, or even just indulging in free hours. Why? By giving time, you feel more capable, confident, and useful—that you've accomplished something and can therefore accomplish more in the future, the study authors explain.

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Chronic back pain? Here’s a relief route you probably haven’t tried: Folks who suffer from chronic pain actually saw an improvement when they began to volunteer with others in a review of research by the Corporation for National and Community Service. Same goes for psychological pain as well, according to a study in BMC Public Health.

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A 2014 study in Psychological Bulletin found that volunteering helped reduce folk's depression symptoms. Furthermore, being a mentor can help your mentee overcome their symptoms of depression, according to a study from Washington State Mentors—pretty cool. Donating your time to others can also help ease depression brought on by a loss of a person or a role, says a study in Psychology and Aging.

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There’s two kinds of well being: hedonic (feeling good about one’s situation in life) and eudaimonic (feeling good about oneself). Researchers from the University of Wisconsin found that while friends and hobbies can help with the former, volunteering and focusing outside oneself can help enhance self-esteem and encourage people to feel like they're a significant part of the world around them and that others value their existence. Another study in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin found that as a result of being happier thanks to volunteering, people are also more likely to find intrinsic motivation and a stronger social identity.

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The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society surveyed over 1,000 adults and found of those who had volunteered in the past year, 90 percent felt it was good for their social life. Male millennials in particular reaped the social butterfly benefits, with 96 percent reporting a boost in their friendships as a result. In fact, those who volunteered felt the experience itself helped them make new friends and expand their social circle as well as enhance the relationships they already had.

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Need a mood boost? People who involve themselves in a valued cause experience more positive emotions, like joy and happiness, and less negative ones, like anger and contempt, reports a study in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. And there’s no limit to the happiness: The more you volunteer, the happier you are, according to a study out of the London School of Economics. (Same goes for donating your money instead of your time, for the record.)

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One of the unexpected life skills volunteering can teach you: how to handle painful situations better. A study analysis by researchers at Volunteering England found that giving up your time can actually help you react to and handle grief better. And it can help fortify you against long hours at the office—doctors who offered their skills to the less fortunate felt less burnt out over time in a study in Mental Health, Religion & Culture.

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