The benefits of giving back, compounded
In an inventive attempt at countering the increasing prevalence of heart disease, a new study in JAMA Pediatrics evaluates the impact of volunteering not on the recipients of good will, but on those donating their time. The authors believe this is the first time a study like this, which focuses on physical health effects of helping others, has been done.
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Led by Dr. Hannah Schreier, a postdoctoral fellow at Mount Sinai, researchers split up a group of high school sophomores from inner-city Vancouver, so that 52 students fulfilled their school-mandated volunteer hours in the fall, while the other half, as a control, waited for the spring.
They didn't ask very much of the volunteers: just one hour a week spent doing after-school activities, like arts and crafts or "homework club," with elementary school students.
Before and after the semester started, the researchers measured the students' risk factors for cardiovascular disease, including BMI, inflammation, and cholesterol levels. After just ten weeks of volunteering, the volunteers had measurably lower levels of each risk factor, compared to those in the control group.
Can we say that this wasn't just because they spend extra hour a week running after young kids? Not entirely. But researchers also looked at the students' changes in mood, self-esteem, and sense of altruism. They had theorized that the very act of volunteering could serve as a kind of social intervention, their involvement in the community substituting for the support networks that adolescents at high risk for cardiovascular disease are often lacking.
As Schreier sums it up, "The volunteers who reported the greatest increases in empathy, altruistic behaviour and mental health were the ones who also saw the greatest improvements in their cardiovascular health." Caring more about others was directly related to reduced markers of inflammation, and increased altruistic behavior (above and beyond what was required for the study) was related to reduced cholesterol. Greater self-esteem did not appear to have a physical effect.
While a small study, this is probably the least cynical way of demonstrating the benefits of civic engagement possible. Not that there's anything wrong with volunteering for self-serving reasons, be it improved health or a padded resume, but it's particularly nice that the people shown to benefit here are kids who could realistically expect to be on the receiving end of do-gooder activity. That said, everyone can benefit from volunteering, and should probably sign up to do so now. Once you're done, you can celebrate with some wine and be the healthiest person ever.