I can’t think of a time when my mother wasn’t serving someone. From cooking a meal for a family in need to driving an elderly person to church, Mom was a model of service for me growing up. What’s amazing to me now is that, at eighty-two, she still serves others at her church and in soup kitchens. Not only does she motivate me to serve, numerous studies show that she herself reaps multiple benefits from serving others.
In “The Health Benefits of Volunteering: A Review of Recent Research,” the Corporation for National & Community Service (CNCS) reviewed thirty-two studies that showed numerous mental and physical health benefits of serving others. Here are just a few highlights from the research.
It really IS more blessed to give than to receive
You may have been taught the biblical principle that it is more blessed to give than to receive. Stephanie L. Brown and her colleagues actually found evidence supporting the adage. Individuals who provide support to others have more health benefits than those who receive support from others. The study, “Providing Social Support May Be More Beneficial Than Receiving It: Results from a Prospective Study of Mortality,” published in Psychological Science, concluded that giving rather than receiving promotes longevity.
That doesn’t mean we should always give and never receive. Graciously receiving allows others to benefit from giving and fulfills needs in our own lives. Brown’s study cites forty-one other studies that explored giving, receiving and their profound effects on health, happiness and society.
It’s never too late to start serving
Serving is especially healthful for the elderly. In fact, research shows that volunteering yields physical and mental health benefits, especially for older adults. The CNCS cited the work of Nancy Morrow-Howell and colleagues, “Effects of Volunteering on the Well-Being of Older Adults,” published in The Journals of Gerontology.
Morrow-Howell reported that in 1996, forty-three percent of people over the age of sixty-five and thirty-seven percent of people over the age of seventy-five volunteered, and because of this, learning about the impact of volunteering on older individuals became an important area of research.
The researchers found that even when controlling for factors like race, gender and social integration (defined as contact with family and friends), adults over the age of sixty who volunteered experienced better health and functioning, and lower depression levels.
Volunteering alongside others has inherent benefits in itself, because when we serve, we form friendships with those with whom we serve. By controlling for social integration, the study shows that volunteering has benefits beyond increasing friendships, a fringe benefit of volunteering.
Serving helps in recovery
The twelfth step of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) calls upon those in recovery to carry the message to others who need help attaining sobriety. Many people find that sponsoring helps them to maintain their own sobriety. The wisdom in this step has far-reaching effects on both the sponsee and sponsor. People who practice the twelfth step provide the sponsee (or those new to recovery) with much-needed support and solidify their own commitment to sobriety.
Helping others addicted to alcohol contributes to the sponsors staying sober, because focusing on others helps in their own success of not picking up another drink, according to Maria E. Pagano, Ph.D., in “Helping Others and Long-term Sobriety: Who Should I Help to Stay Sober?” published in Alcoholism Treatment Quarterly. Pagano and her colleagues also noticed these patterns in their research:
“Sober alcoholics were significantly more helpful to others at home, work, and in twelve-step programs than they had been while drinking.”
“Lower levels of general helping while drinking increased to moderate levels at one year and twenty years sober.”
In AA, the sponsees become sponsors, and the sponsors increase their level of service, creating a healthy cycle of receiving and giving back. Isn’t that what life is all about?
Susan Logan-McCracken is a writer and editor for Sovereign Health, a Joint Commission-accredited behavioral health treatment provider with locations throughout the United States. To learn more, visit us at SovHealth.com, Facebook and LinkedIn or follow us on Twitter. Image: bikeriderlondon/Shutterstock