Q: Does volunteering really make you happier? Jeff, student
A: This is a timely question as the holiday season is in full swing. Most likely in the next couple of weeks you'll be reflecting on all of the people that have come in and out of your life and left indelible markers of impact. And you should do just that - reflect on years past, as research demonstrates that nostalgia enhances mood levels. But what could make your holiday season even more mood altering is volunteering.
Research shows that there is a psychological phenomenon called the "helper's high," which is described as a euphoric high released after completing altruistic acts, such as volunteering. The helper's high is analogous to the release of endorphins, the same neurotransmitter released after exercise. Research finds that volunteering makes individuals more empathetic, and provides a sense of purpose and self-efficacy. One of the most salient studies, cited by Stephen G. Post, a bioethics professor at Case Western University, followed over 400 married women with children. The researchers hypothesized that when measured after a period of time, these women would report higher levels of stress than women with no or fewer children. However, whether the women volunteered or not made the largest difference in stress levels, more so than number of children, education, and socioeconomic status. The researchers found after following these women for 30 years in a longitudinal study, 52 percent who those who did not volunteer suffered from a critical illness, compared with 36 percent of women who committed their time to volunteering.
In pop culture, no one is more emblematic of the helper's high than Ebenezer Scrooge, who learns that benevolence not only made him happier, but made him look healthier and more fit. Now psychologists propose that volunteering and altruism should be pillars of public health. Though the general public often promulgates exercising and eating well as the largest indicators of happiness, psychologists suggest that volunteering be made a specific pillar when delineating markers of a healthy live.
If health and happiness are a bonus effect from helping others, then why not lend a hand and help your head? For starters, there's www.newyorkcares.org or www.bigsnyc.org and several more. So, if you've gotten into the habit of eating well and exercising this holiday season, do your self and others around you a favor and find a way to give your time. Have a healthy and happy holiday, all.
Kristine Keller received her Masters in Psychology from New York University.