by Lauren Kessler, journalist and author of Counterclockwise: My Year of Hypnosis, Hormones, Dark Chocolate, and Other Adventures in the World of Anti-Aging
Every Wednesday, for a few hours, I volunteer at a local charity that provides hot meals for those in need. I make coffee, pour milk and juice, serve desserts, bus tables, scrape plates, do kitchen prep. When I arrive for my shift, I'm preoccupied with some stressful something – a kid with a cough that won't go away, a deadline, a chore that needs doing, a work "situation." Then, magically, gloriously, four hours later, I feel great. Great with a capital G: Buoyant, cheerful, calm and centered but full of energy, brimming with energy. I want to say "joyful," but I know how over-the-top that sounds. I'll say it anyway: joyful.
When people find out I do this volunteer work, they say: How good of you to do this, how selfless of you to donate your time. And when I reply that the work seems almost entirely selfish because I get so much more than I give, they think I'm playing humble (not generally a problem for me) or being a Pollyanna (not ever a problem for me). No. I am being utterly truthful. My stint at Food for Lane County is, invariably, the best part of my week. Yes, that's right: the BEST. When I leave I feel deep-down, soul-satisfyingly healthy – emotionally, spiritually, psychologically and PHYSICALLY healthy.
That volunteering makes people feel useful and boosts their self-esteem is old (but still good) news. Now there is scientific proof to back me up about the physical benefits I seem to derive: It turns out that volunteering is good for your health. It turns out that volunteering is a powerful anti-aging strategy. Several recent studies have found evidence that those who volunteer live longer than their non-philanthropic counterparts. A 2013 study in the journal Psychology and Aging found that 50+ adults who volunteers about 4 hours a week (like I do) were 40 percent less likely to develop high blood pressure 4 years later.
Other studies are finding fewer health complaints, higher functional ability, less depression and anxiety, and less incidence of heart disease among volunteers than among matched sets of non-volunteers. The booklet, "The Health Benefits of Volunteering: A Review of Recent Research," is full of such happy news. The research reviewed in the booklet focus on mid-life and older people – with health benefits increasing the older one gets – but I also found a study in which high school kids saw a drop in their cholesterol levels after volunteering with younger children once a week for 2 months. So you are never too old – or too young – to volunteer.
It's noon now, and my volunteer shift begins in 45 minutes. I feel healthier (mind, body, soul) already.
Published on: November 21, 2013