The Physiological Effects of Doing Good
Think about your favorite volunteering experience. Maybe you helped serve homeless people at a soup kitchen. Maybe you were involved with animal fundraising. Whatever it was, you were undoubtedly aware of the benefits your work had for the recipients of your benevolent work. But did you know you got something out of it – something that lasts longer than the great feelings you had?
You may know that volunteering can increase your chances of getting a job, improve your self-esteem, and generally make you a more well rounded person. But there is also a more tangible, physical benefit to doing good. It’s true: doing charity work actually improves your health. Here’s how:
It improves your immune system.
One Harvard study found that thinking about generosity, whether your own or someone else’s, boosted the antibody levels in study participants’ saliva. Students watched a video of Mother Theresa’s work, and the researchers watch their antibody levels almost skyrocket. The increased levels continued for up to an hour after the survey was conducted, too.
Another study found that doing volunteer work released the endorphins that are also released during exercise. These endorphins are linked to improved immune and nervous systems. An improved immune system means suffering from fewer ailments in general, but studies have also shown that increasing your social circle – which happens when volunteering – specifically reduces the number of colds people get.
It can help ease depression.
Doing good deeds also helps with depression. Obviously it helps take your mind off your own situation and puts your problems into perspective, but it also helps on a chemical level. Charity work releases dopamine, the feel-good chemical that gets released when we do something pleasurable, according to Dr. David Hamilton, who wrote Why Kindness is Good for You. Dopamine, in turn, makes us feel happier so that we will engage in the behavior that initially released it again. In that way, volunteering can help ease depression.
It increases the length and quality of life.
Several studies have found that people who volunteer regularly have fewer occurrences of heart disease than people who do not volunteer. They also generally live longer, even when things like health, weight and economic and social factors are considered.
A Canadian study found that 85% of Ontarians who volunteered rated their health as ‘good’. Only 79% of those who didn’t volunteer reported the same. Of the volunteers, only 2% claimed their health was ‘poor’, compared to 6% of non-volunteers.
Moreover, people with chronic pain reported having less intense pain, improved functionality and less depression when they reached out to other people suffering with similar pains.
The best thing about all of this is that you don’t have to give your whole life over to charity to reap the benefits of volunteering. The Corporation for National and Community Service collated over 30 studies into the health benefits of volunteering and found that volunteers who worked two hours a week got the maximum health benefits from their work. So only a little bit of time put in can help you get a whole lot more out of charitable work.