Thursday, March 24, 2011

RX for health: Volunteering -- March 24, 2011 column


In 2008, Stephen G. Post lost his university job, and, after 20 years in Cleveland, uprooted his family and moved to Long Island, New York.

Post was lucky. In his 50s, he found an ideal job doing work he loves. He became a professor of preventive medicine and the director of the Center for Medical Humanities, Compassionate Care and Bioethics at Stony Brook University.

For his family, though, the move was traumatic. His marriage suffered as did his relationship with his son, Andrew, then 13. The lowest point came while the family was staying a few days in a motel until they could move into their new home.

“This was the perfect place for all hell to break loose, and it did,” Post recalls. As a thunderstorm opened up, his son was yelling and his wife, Mitsuko, was in tears.

“I was the least popular husband and father on the face of the earth,” Post writes in “The Hidden Gifts of Helping,” a book that blends memoir, self-help, science and spirituality. “Hidden Gifts” throws a lifeline to anyone who has had to relocate physically or emotionally in these turbulent economic times. His blog is here.

The RX: Help others.

Post put decades of research into altruism and compassion to the test. He and his family dove into helping others in their new community and, yes, found happiness.

It sounds corny, but Post cites studies showing that volunteers feel better than people who don’t volunteer. They suffer less stress and depression. Volunteering is good for one’s physical health, and some studies even suggest that volunteers live longer. I caught up with Post by phone. He makes it sound easy.

“If it’s just helping a neighbor shovel snow, that’s fine and a good thing,” he said. “But making a giving behavior a regular part of your weekly life is what’s important” for health.

Scientists identified “helper therapy,” the phenomenon that helpers receive benefits too, in the mid-1960s. What’s new, Post said, is how much – or little -- volunteering one needs to benefit one’s health. More is not necessarily better.

“A good dose” is a couple of hours of volunteering a week. It’s generally more effective to interact with others rather than to work alone at home, but that’s up to the individual. There’s apparently no additional benefit to volunteering more than about 100 hours a year, he said. Plus, those who give more hours risk burn-out.

As states and the federal government rein in services due to budget shortfalls, the need for volunteers is likely to mushroom. Web sites like and aim to link volunteers with activities they enjoy, causes they support or skills they want to learn.

The first boomers are turning 65, and some are finding they have the time -- and the need -- to give of themselves.

Volunteering has “really made a difference in my life,” said a friend who recently turned 65. She’s a private person, so I’ll call her Veronica, her confirmation name. After she was laid off at 63, Veronica couldn’t find another full-time job. She’s devoted to her husband, who has Alzheimer’s disease, but she felt her world shrinking.

“I felt old. It seemed like nobody wanted me anymore, that my life was going to be washing dishes, cleaning house, cooking – and taking my husband to doctor’s appointments,” she said.

Last fall, Veronica began volunteering three mornings a week as an English teacher to immigrants. As she volunteered, she felt her world expand and she began doing things she had put off. She got her will written, signed up for Medicare and arranged adult day care for her husband.Veronica also may be extending her own life.

Doug Oman of the School of Public Health at the University of California-Berkeley studied elderly people in Marin County over seven years in the 1990s. He discovered that volunteers were less likely to die than other people. Even when he controlled for age, gender, exercise, social support and symptoms of depression, Oman found that volunteers were 44 percent less likely to die during the study than non-volunteers.

Just how volunteering translates into physical health is still a mystery, and Oman says more research is needed.

For now, it’s enough to know that volunteering helps the volunteer, too.

© 2011 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


  1. Ms Mercer really hits the target with this warm. well-written, and positive column on the benefits of volunteering. Not only does it make you want to volunteer to do something useful for your fellow man, it makes you feel good about life in general.

    Nice work Ms Mercer. Thank you for brightening our day. We look forward each week to reading your column. Keep on doing your fine work.

  2. We all should volunteer for the causes we support, as Marsha suggests. A most appropriate column for these trying times.

    Well done, Marsha.