Sep 16, 2011
We study empathy and altruism in our research lab and have noticed that volunteer organizations often try to get volunteers to help by telling them about all the personal benefits that they can receive. We sometimes see this with students who need volunteer experience in order to get a job or to get into medical school. We wondered if it really matters why you volunteer. Does it have to be a sincere effort to help someone else? Or does the act of helping someone itself affect your health?
We examined this research question in a publicly available dataset that followed older adults over time (the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study). In 2004, they were asked about their volunteering behavior, and in 2008, mortality status was available. Previous research has found that there are health benefits to giving to others and volunteering. We examined whether the reasons that people volunteer would affect these health benefits.
There are many reasons that people volunteer, and in fact, some people have more than one reason to volunteer. People might help in order to get some personal benefit, such as feeling needed, feeling better about themselves, or learning new things. But volunteers also might be genuinely motivated by feeling compassion for others in need. We found that the more people focused on such other-oriented reasons for helping, the less likely they were to die four years later. Research has found a number of health benefits for volunteers of any age, including decreased depression and better psychological health, fewer illnesses, and a lower likelihood of dying. We knew about this past research, and it’s also possible that people who are healthier volunteer more, so in our study, we controlled for psychological and physical health—and still found our effects.
So why should motives matter so much? In our study, we did not specifically examine why motives affected mortality risk; however, some other research being conducted in the Interdisciplinary Program for Empathy and Altruism Research (iPEAR) at the University of Michigan can perhaps shed light on this. We think that having other-oriented motives can help buffer people from stress that occurs while volunteering or during other life activities. In this other work, we are finding that people who help others for other-oriented reasons have decreases in cardiovascular reactivity and increases in protective hormones, such as oxytocin. We call this set of physiological responses “the caregiving system” because it is a similar response to the one that occurs in maternal caregiving with infants. A chronic activation of this system is likely to blunt the long-term negative physical effects of stress, which has been linked to all kinds of serious illnesses (e.g. cardiovascular, cancer).
Sara Konrath is a principal investigator at iPEAR and a professor of social psychology at the University of Michigan and a professor of psychiatry at the University of Rochester Medical Center, and Andrea Fuhrel-Forbis is a fellow at the Center for Bioethics and Social Sciences in Medicine at the University of Michigan.