How volunteering may improve mental outlook

A new study shows a correlation between volunteering and improved mental health for those age 40 and above.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor/File
Volunteer Bob Duyck helps Audrey Benedis with her taxes at the Devonshire Senior Center in Phoenix, Ariz., on Feb. 12, 2007.

Volunteering may lead to improved mental and physical health, a new study reports. 

A survey conducted by researchers at the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom found a positive link between unpaid volunteer work and mental well-being for those age 40 and above. 

"There is a general consensus that volunteering is beneficial to everyone regardless of the age," lead author Dr. Faiza Tabassum, of Southampton Statistical Sciences Research Institute, told Reuters Health. "However, our study has shown volunteering may be more strongly associated with mental well-being at some points of the life-course than others."

Mental health scores among middle-aged and older people were better for those who had volunteered before, and best among people who reported volunteering regularly. Factors such as marital status, educational level, social class, and overall state of health were all accounted for.

For people over 40, "volunteering has beneficial effects because of the social roles and family connections which are more likely to promote volunteering at that stage of the life-course," Dr. Tabassum said. She cited the example of the parents of school-age children volunteering for school-related activities or events. 

As data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics show, people between the ages of 35 and 54 are most likely to volunteer, especially those who are white, female, married, and have gone to college. 

People who volunteer may be in a better state mentally because of the social opportunities found through volunteering, researchers say. 

"Being engaged in routine activities, an emotional feeling that you're giving to other people, and the fact that you are feeling better about yourself by being productive and giving back, these are some of the psychological benefits of volunteering," Dr. Dimitris Kiosses, a geriatric psychiatrist at Weill Cornell Medicine and New York-Presbyterian Hospital who was not involved in the study, told CBS News.

The social aspect of volunteering can be especially beneficial for older people who find themselves isolated socially, or those who have lost their earnings, Tabassum says, as "volunteering regularly helps contribute to the maintenance of social networks."

Although the percentage of teenagers ages 16 to 19 who volunteer is relatively high – 26.4 percent – the researchers did not find any link between volunteering and improved mental health for people in that age group. This may be because "school students usually take volunteering as an obligatory task," Tabassum tells CBS News.

The researchers are careful to note that while they did find a strong correlation between volunteering and better mental health, the study was observational and did not prove that volunteering was the cause. 

"As a result, we were unable to examine important selection effects, such as whether poor health might have limited whether or not individuals participate in volunteering particularly at old age," Tabassum told Reuters. "Any future study should investigate this aspect."

This report contains material from Reuters. 

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