F or Rotarians, Service Above Self is a succinct guide to life. Now, scientists are finding that Rotary’s motto may represent even more: a prescription for good health.
Service to others is “as important as exercise and quitting smoking,” says Stephen Post, coauthor of Why Good Things Happen to Good People and director of Stony Brook University’s Center for Medical Humanities, Compassionate Care, and Bioethics, in New York, USA. Post is also president of a nonprofit with a memorable name: the Institute for Research on Unlimited Love.
When it was founded in 2001, Post admits, some of his academic colleagues were skeptical. But those feelings dissipated after they saw what the institute was accomplishing. The nonprofit funds research – it has disbursed about $9.4 million in grants so far – that focuses on unselfish love, including such areas as volunteerism and organ donation.
For several years, Post has observed mounting evidence that volunteering can benefit both mental and physical health. One study with participants over age 55, conducted by Doug Oman, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Public Health, found that volunteering for at least two organizations was as beneficial as exercising four times a week in reducing mortality rate.
When Oman began the study in the 1990s, he was intrigued by friends’ responses to his work. “I would say, ‘I’m doing this study on volunteering and longevity,’ and they’d say, ‘Oh yeah, volunteering, it’s good for your health.’” What his friends knew intuitively wouldn’t be scientifically verified for another decade, he notes. “It was fascinating to see. It was almost like researchers were catching up to popular culture.”
The growing body of literature also suggests that certain factors may amplify the health benefits of volunteering. Oman evaluated several studies for a chapter in Altruism and Health: Perspectives from Empirical Research, published by Oxford University Press in 2007, and saw an intriguing pattern emerge. “We found that in many of these studies, the [health] protectiveness of volunteering was greater among people who had other kinds of social connections,” he says. “You might think if people have enough social connections already, volunteering won’t make much of a difference. But it does.”
Rotarians might engage in philanthropic projects out of a desire to help others, but they also likely enjoy the social interaction with their peers. And though a sincere urge to serve can result in health benefits to the volunteer, Post notes, “a lot of the success of volunteering depends on how we take care of volunteers. To optimize their capacity to give, you don’t want to forget that people have physical and emotional limits.”
Volunteering includes more than organized activities, he says. “People who report informal helping behavior in the neighborhood are doing well too.” That’s the case for John St. Clair, a member of Rotary Club of Idaho Falls, Idaho. In 2007, St. Clair learned that John “Jack” Watson, of the Rotary Club of Minden, Nev., had a kidney disease that would soon require dialysis. The two men, both members of the United States Golfing Fellowship of Rotarians, had met every year for a decade at the fellowship’s tournament, hitting the links and swapping Rotary stories.
Now they have something else in common: a kidney. St. Clair gave one of his to Watson in February; the surgery took place the day before Valentine’s Day. Seven months later, St. Clair and his wife visited Watson. “We walked up to their front door, Jack walked out, and his color was so good. He looked so well healed that both of us just grinned.”
St. Clair shrugs off any suggestion that his organ donation was a dramatic example of giving. “To me, it’s just right place, right time, right thing to do,” he says. “Consistently my thinking has been, God gave us two kidneys for a reason – and that’s so we can give one away.”
Watson experienced the most pronounced health benefits, but St. Clair feels he’s gained as well. “There’s a vicarious sense of joy in Jack’s recovery,” he says. “I can feel great because he feels great.”
Several studies underscore the mental health benefits of volunteering. In October, Foresight, a British government scientific think tank, released five recommendations for preventive care to promote mental health. On the list was “Give. Do something nice for a friend, or a stranger. … Volunteer your time.”
When people volunteer, their mental health often improves, partly because they spend less time ruminating on personal problems, says Post. “It frees them from a kind of emotional insularity,” he says. “It’s amazing to see how many people with major illnesses have really gotten into volunteering.”
A 2002 study by researchers at Boston College suggests that volunteering can help people dealing with chronic pain. The research showed that when patients served as peer volunteers for others with chronic pain, the volunteers’ pain intensity diminished, and their mental health improved.
Says Post, “You see a convergence on the idea that it’s good to be good.”
is a freelance writer based in Chicago.