Volunteering may be good for your health, reveals a large
systematic review and meta-analysis led by the University of Exeter Medical
Volunteering can improve mental health and help you live
longer, finds the study which is published in the open access journal BMC
The research pools and compares data from multiple
experimental trials and longitudinal cohort studies. Some observational evidence
points to around a 20% reduction in mortality among volunteers compared to non-volunteers
in cohort studies. Volunteers also reported lower levels of depression,
increased life satisfaction and enhanced well-being, although the findings have
yet to be confirmed in trials.
The systematic review was led by Dr Suzanne Richards at the
University of Exeter Medical School, and was supported by the National
Institute for Health Research Collaboration for Leadership in Applied Health
Research and Care in the South West Peninsula (NIHR PenCLAHRC).
Worldwide, the prevalence of adult volunteering varies with
estimates of 22.5% in Europe, 36% in Australia and 27% in the USA. Volunteers
commonly cite altruistic motives for their habit 'giving something back' to
their community, or supporting an organisation or charity that has supported
them. Volunteering can also be used to gain work experience or to widen social
circles, but its effects may go far deeper.
Previous reviews have highlighted supposed health benefits,
including increased longevity, improved quality of life, reductions in stress
and hospitalisation, but these tend to be based on narrative, rather than
comparative evidence. Richards and colleagues pool data from 40 papers which
reported data from 9 experimental trials and 16 cohort studies to arrive at
The causal mechanisms underlying the potential health
benefits of volunteering are unclear. Some people hypothesise that physical
benefits, for example, could be explained by the fact that volunteers spend
more time out of the house. But the relationship with mental health may be
Although people tend to volunteer for altruistic reasons, if
they do not feel they are 'getting something back', then the positive impact of
volunteering on quality of life is limited. Volunteer too much, and the habit
can become a burden, bringing problems of its own. More research is needed to
unpack the theoretical mechanisms by which volunteers may accrue different
In 2010, the UK government launched the 'Building the Big
Society' policy, which called for low cost, sustainable interventions, such as
volunteering, for people to participate in their local communities to improve
social capital and community engagement. Volunteering has also been advocated
by the United Nations and the American and European governments as a way to
foster engagement in local communities, with the potential for public health
benefits and decreasing health inequalities.
Dr Richards said: "Our systematic review shows that
volunteering is associated with improvements in mental health, but more work is
needed to establish whether volunteering is actually the cause."
It is still unclear whether biological and cultural factors
and social resources that are often associated with better health and survival
are also associated with a willingness to volunteer in the first place. The
challenge now is to encourage people from more diverse backgrounds to take up
volunteering, and then to measure whether improvements arise for them.