Lower-wealth volunteers experience greater health gains from volunteering than wealthier volunteers

August 1, 2021

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Lower-wealth volunteers experience greater health gains from volunteering than wealthier volunteers

Formal volunteering in life is beneficial for both physical and psychological well-being. However, research has shown that adults with key advantages, such as wealth, are more likely to volunteer and reap its benefits. In a new study appearing in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine investigators found that lower-wealth volunteers may experience even greater health gains than higher-wealth volunteers.

In the United States, around 29 million older adults volunteer through organizations each year, contributing three billion hours of service to the community at large. Volunteering is regarded as beneficial for volunteer health, and some studies have even suggested the possibility that volunteering could become a low-cost, sustainable public health intervention.

What the researchers say: “Earlier studies with two to 20 years of follow-up have reported that regardless of how volunteering was measured (for example, status, intensity, duration, or consistency), the activity was associated with higher self-rated health and fewer depressive symptoms,” the co-author of the study said. “However, research points to potential selection bias, because older adults with key advantages, such as wealth, are more likely to volunteer and reap its benefits.”

“In this new study, we wanted to challenge the ‘single regression coefficient’ for the benefits of volunteering on health in the entire population,” noted the researchers. “We were interested in whether the effects of formal volunteering on health were different between the wealthiest and the least wealthy individuals (highest 20 percent versus lowest 20 percent). We were also interested in understanding the practical implications, particularly for low-wealth individuals.”

The investigators analyzed data from nearly 90,000 observations from the Health and Retirement Study, a longitudinal and nationally representative US study surveying 20,000 older adults every two years. They included observations from 2004 to 2016.

Findings showed that volunteering enhanced self-reported health and reduced depressive symptoms for older adults in general. Significantly, those in the lowest wealth quintile experienced more gains in self-reported health from volunteering compared to their wealthy counterparts. Volunteering was associated with fewer depressive symptoms regardless of wealth status.

“This study enhances our understanding of how formal volunteering influences health and well-being in two key ways,” the researchers commented. “First, we echo previous research that finds that volunteering is beneficial for older adults’ physical and mental health. And second, through our advanced statistical procedures, we show that lower-wealth volunteers may experience even greater gains in self-reported health than higher-wealth volunteers.”

“It is noteworthy that formal volunteering may operate as a health equalizer,” they added. “Policymakers and charitable organizations tend to focus on the middle class to wealthy volunteers, but it’s important to eliminate barriers to volunteering among the least wealthy, such as lack of transportation, discrimination, or lack of organizational support.”

So, what? Volunteering can provide many benefits to individuals at any age, and it is possible that being involved in the work of nonprofit and community organizations increases one’s social networks and access to important health promotion programs which, in turn, influence the health of the lowest wealth volunteers the most.

Also, as the researchers point out volunteering is an equalizer—and not just in terms of health. It also creates a sense of equality in terms of status, of self-worth and of importance to the community. As work becomes less important in our economic system (most of us will in all probability be without formal jobs within the next 20 years), volunteering will gain in importance as that which gives people meaning and purpose in their lives.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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