Although most of the research has focused on how volunteering benefits people over 65, it has been shown to have a strong effect on relieving depression and improving well-being for all adults. Volunteering is especially helpful for people experiencing depression and chronic medical conditions such as pain.
It has been shown to help overall health, life functioning, one’s sense of optimism and control. It does not seem to make a difference whether you volunteer with one organization or several, nor what cause you volunteer for. However there is some evidence that people over 65 benefit more from volunteering for religious causes, while this finding does not seem to hold for people under 65.
Ways to Find Volunteering and Service Opportunities
There are several services online that will match you with volunteer opportunities by location and interest.
Research on Volunteering and Service for Depression
Li, Y. Ferraro, K. Volunteering and Depression in Later Life: Social Benefit or Selection Processes? Journal of Health and Social Behavior, Volume 46, Number 1, March 2005 , pp. 68-84(17).
Depression was shown to be associated with a subsequent increase in formal volunteering, suggesting voluntarism as a means of compensation. Functional health problems, not depression, emerged as the important barrier to volunteering.
Li, Y. Ferraro, K. Volunteering and Depression: The Effect of Social Causation or Selection?” Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, Atlanta Hilton Hotel, Atlanta, GA, Aug 16, 2003.
Addresses these questions with three waves of data from a national sample of older people. Multi-group structural-equation models for complete and incomplete data are used to estimate the joint causal relationship between volunteer work and depression analysis. The results reveal a beneficial effect of formal volunteering on depression, but not for informal helping. In addition, a sample selection effect was detected and accounted for in the analysis — depressed persons and non-volunteers were less likely to complete the panel study. Depression was shown to be associated with a subsequent increase in formal volunteering, suggesting voluntarism as a means of compensation.
Wheeler, J. Gorey, K. Greenblatt, B. The beneficial effects of volunteering for older volunteers and the people they serve : A meta-analysis. International journal of aging & human development. 1998, vol. 47, no1, pp. 69-79 (2 p.3/4).
This meta-analysis of thirty-seven independent studies provided the means of inferring not only that elder volunteers’ sense of well-being seemed to be significantly bolstered through volunteering, but also that such relatively healthy older people represent a significant adjunct resource for meeting some of the service needs of more vulnerable elders, as well as those of other similarly vulnerable groups such as disabled children.
Lum, T. The Effects of Volunteering on the Physical and Mental Health of Older People. Research on Aging, Vol. 27, No. 1, 31-55 (2005).
Longitudinal data from the 1993 and 2000 panels of the Asset and Health Dynamics Among the Oldest Old Study (AHEAD) were used to measure health and mental health outcomes of people over age 70 who volunteered at least 100 hours in 1993. The findings provide empirical support to earlier claims that volunteering slows the decline in self-reported health and functioning levels, slows the increase in depression levels, and improves mortality rates for those who volunteer.
Morrow-Howell, N. et al. Effects of Volunteering on the Well-Being of Older Adults. The Journals of Gerontology Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences 58:S137-S145 (2003).
This study re-analyzed data from the Americans’ Changing Lives Study. It found that older adults who volunteer and who engage in more hours of volunteering report higher levels of well-being. This positive effect was not moderated by social integration, race, or gender. There was no effect of the number of organizations for which the older adult volunteered, the type of organization, or the perceived benefit of the work to others.
Musick, M. Wilson, J. Volunteering and depression: the role of psychological and social resources in different age groups. Social Science & Medicine. Volume 56, Issue 2, January 2003, Pages 259-269.
Found that, for the elderly volunteering for religious causes is more beneficial for mental health than volunteering for secular causes.
Arnstein, P. et al. From chronic pain patient to peer: Benefits and risks of volunteering. Pain Management Nursing. Volume 3, Issue 3, September 2002, Pages 94-103.
This study found that improvements in pain, disability, and depression were reported immediately after training and after volunteering for several months without evidence of harm for a sample of chronic pain patients who did peer volunteering. Improvements in pain, disability, and depression were reported immediately after training and after volunteering for several months without evidence of harm.
Helmes, E. Govindan, A. Differences between Older Adult Volunteers and Non-volunteers in Depression and Self-efficacy. Australian Journal on Volunteering. Volume 12 Issue 2 (2007).
Levels of self-efficacy and depression were contrasted among 87 older volunteers and 84 non-volunteers on measures of self-efficacy, depression, years of education and age. The results found that self-efficacy, depression and age all discriminated significantly between volunteers and non-volunteers. The present study highlights the importance volunteering may have in fostering self-efficacy in older people, and while exploratory in nature, it has important implications for promoting independent functioning in later life and improving the quality of life of older people.
Mellor, D. et al. Volunteering and Well-Being: Do Self-Esteem, Optimism, and Perceived Control Mediate the Relationship? Journal of Social Service Research, Volume 34, Issue 4 August 2008 , pages 61 – 70.
Using personal well-being as a more positive measure of well-being than absence of depression, this study further explored the possible mediating role of self-esteem, optimism, and perceived control in the relationship between volunteer status and well-being. Participants (N = 1,219) completed a 97-item survey as part of the Australian Unity Wellbeing project. Variables measured included personal well-being, self-esteem, optimism, and a number of personality and psychological adjustment factors. Analyses revealed that perceived control and optimism, but not self-esteem, mediated the relationship between volunteer status and personal well-being.