• Volunteer Vacations: The Health Benefits of Helping Others

    Image for volunteer vacation article Volunteering is popular among people of all ages—from students to retirees. What are the benefits of all of this giving?

    Creating a Sense of Well-Being

    It seems intuitive that helping others would make you feel good, but are there really health benefits? Studies have shown that volunteering can play a role in increasing your overall sense of well-being, alleviating chronic pain, and even reducing depression .
    In a study led by Peggy Thoits, data was used from the Americans’ Changing Lives Study to examine how volunteering affected six different aspects of well-being. The study divided the 3,617 respondents into two groups: those who volunteered and those who did not. Comparisons were then made for levels of happiness, life satisfaction, self-esteem, sense of control over life, physical health, and depression. Thoits found that “people who were in better physical and mental health were more likely to volunteer, and conversely that volunteer work was good for both mental and physical health. People of all ages who volunteered were happier and experienced better physical health and less depression.”
    A report by the Corporation for National and Community Service states that people who volunteer have greater longevity, higher functional ability, lower rates of depression, and less incidence of heart disease. A review of current research also suggests that volunteering is especially beneficial to older adults and those who serve 100 volunteer hours a year.

    Helping Chronic Pain

    In another study, Paul Arnstein of Boston College and his colleagues evaluated the effects of volunteering on chronic pain patients. Pain, disability, self-efficacy (degree of confidence in the ability to control pain), and depression were all measured.
    Their findings show that pain, depression, and disability decreased after volunteering, while self-efficacy remained stable. Several months later, the researchers found that the improvements continued without harm, suggesting that volunteering may help alleviate chronic pain. The researchers note that the participants reported themes of “making a connection” and having “a sense of purpose” when volunteering.

    Lowering Depression

    Researchers Marc Musick and John Wilson of the University of Texas at Austin, studied whether volunteering had any effect on depression. They took data from the Americans' Changing Lives survey, but looked at three different years of data. They found that initially volunteering lowered depression for those over 65, and over time benefited all age groups. The researchers note that some of the protection from depression came from the social integration of volunteering.

    Learning About Volunteer Vacations

    With all of the benefits of volunteering, you may want to spend your next vacation doing something positive. Here are some points to keep in mind:
    • Location—Some people choose a location close to home or within their country, while others want to go abroad.
    • Type of challenge—There are many types of challenges ranging from physically grueling to intellectually stimulating. You will have to decide which is best for you.
    • Your skills—Your professional skills may be in great demand in less developed countries. Helping others may also help to prevent job burnout and improve job satisfaction.
    • Language—If contemplating travel to a foreign country, take into consideration the language spoken and your ability to communicate.
    • Length of time—Most volunteer vacations run from 1-3 weeks. Decide how much time you can donate.
    • Free time—Ask the organization you are volunteering for about their policy on free time. Will you have time to go off on your own and explore?
    To view different opportunities, you can start by looking at the International Volunteer Programs Association , which lists different volunteer organizations. Some popular programs include:
    • The Earthwatch Institute offers trips to remote locations where scientific research is done from filming dolphins to testing water to gathering nutritional information.
    • The American Hiking Society offers trips from Maine to Alaska where participants rebuild footpaths, cabins, and shelters.
    • Wilderness Volunteers work with public land agencies like the Forest Service to preserve and clear wild lands.
    • Passport In Time centers its vacations on archaeological excavations and preserving historical structures.
    • The Sierra Club works on a variety of tasks, from observing marine life to maintaining vulnerable wilderness areas.
    Take the time to research volunteer vacations. You will be sure to find one that matches your interests.


    International Volunteers Programs Association http://www.volunteerinternational.org/

    United Nations Volunteers http://www.unv.org/


    Volunteer Canada http://www.volunteer.ca/

    Volunteer Toronto http://volunteertoronto.ca/


    Arnstein P, Vidal M, Wells-Federman C, et al. From chronic pain patient to peer: benefits and risks of volunteering. Pain Management Nursing . 2002;3:94-103.

    Corporation for National and Community Service, Office of Research and Policy Development. The Health Benefits of Volunteering: A Review of Recent Research. 2007. Available at: http://www.nationalservice.gov/pdf/07%5F0506%5Fhbr.pdfAccessed June 18, 2012.

    Musick MA, Wilson J. Volunteering and depression: the role of psychological and social resources in different age groups. Social Science & Medicine . 2003;56:259-69.

    Thoits PA, Hewitt LN. Volunteer work and well-being. Journal of Health and Social Behavior . 2001;42:115-131.

    Volunteering in the United States, 2011. United States Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics website. Available at: http://www.bls.gov/news.release/volun.toc.htm . Published February 22, 2012. Accessed June 18, 2012.

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