Standing before my beginning computer class I can feel a change.
I’m not a teacher by profession but I volunteer at a local senior citizens center providing basic instruction to seniors and others who want to learn how to use a computer. It’s pretty basic stuff but I’m certain my students appreciate it greatly. But, I also feel that I get great benefits out of my volunteer work. I can actually feel different when I volunteer.
That’s a common response when you ask people why they volunteer work. But, is there a physiological benefit from volunteering? Has science discovered why we enjoy volunteering so much? What changes occur in our minds and bodies when we decide to give to others?
It turns out science has done a great deal of research on the subject of volunteering, and for those who would like to know what exactly is clicking inside us when we willingly do for others please read on.
Live Longer With Volunteerism?
It would be hard to say when humans first started to volunteer. It’s safe to say the practice – in a formal sense – goes back to biblical times. Perhaps earlier. But, it is only recently that science has been able to pinpoint specific biological changes or effects that occur when someone volunteers. Researchers are now able to state categorically that volunteering has physiologically positive outcomes .
In one 1989 study,  a small sample of women were followed for several years and it was determined that their participation in clubs and volunteer activities had a significant effect on how long they lived. A later study quantified the issue of volunteering and mortality saying people who volunteered a great deal had a 44 percent lower mortality than non-volunteers . Additional studies have demonstrated that volunteering has a significant effect on happiness, life satisfaction, self-esteem, depression, and physical health.
The research has even delved into how much volunteering produces the best results. For example, there is research that suggests that 40 hours per year has a noticeable protective effect against mortality; but volunteering for additional hours didn’t add much in the way of additional protection. Other researchers debate that an exact amount of time spent volunteering results in specific outcomes. But, there is agreement that volunteering has significant benefits for the volunteer (not to mention the people or the cause they are assisting).
Volunteering and Alzheimer’s
For example, in one study conducted by John Hopkins University volunteers who were paired with school children for the purpose of tutoring showed noticeable signs that brain aging could be slowed or reversed. Using neuro-imaging researchers were able to see that the volunteers’ brain function improved after participating in the program.
Along the same lines a study conducted by Rush University Medial Center in Chicago in 2010 showed that individuals who report a greater purpose in their lives (such as volunteering) appear less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease or mild cognitive impairment.
However, what exactly happens in ones brain when volunteering takes place?
Credit: wikipedia commonsIn his book, “Compass of Pleasure,” author David Linden , a brain scientist and professor of neuroscience at Johns Hopkins, suggests that volunteering – just like other things we like to do (some good, like eating food, and some not so good, like addiction to drugs) – can affect the same parts of our brains in much the same ways. He says what’s going on in our brains when we indulge in food, sex and drugs, turns on or off the same pleasure centers.
“Pleasure is our compass no matter the direction we seek,” he says. “Social things, like exercise and generosity and learning for the sake of learning, give us a pleasure buzz that at the anatomical and chemical level is nearly indistinguishable from that we get from our vices.”
He says humans have “a distinct circuitry in our brains called the medial forebrain pleasure circuit that critically depends upon the neurotransmitter dopamine [neurotransmitters are chemicals that send signals to the brain]. Portions of this circuit are activated in all of these behaviors, both the vices and the virtues. The pleasure that we get from doing good deeds or by learning is underpinned by the same series of electrical and biochemical steps behind the pleasure of fatty food or alcohol.”
So, while our desire to volunteer may be hard-wired to our brains and affects our neurological systems in ways many of us don’t even understand, the oft-told reason for volunteering – because it just feels good – is as good an explanation as any. Try it – it’s good for you.
 Health Benefits of Volunteering in the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study
Journal of Health and Social Behavior December 2007 48: 450-464
 Moen, Phyllis, Donna Dempster-McClain, & Robin M. Williams, Jr. 1992. “Successful aging: A life-course perspective on women’s multiple roles and health.” American Journal of Sociology, 97:1612-1638
 Oman, Doug, Carl E.Thoresen, & Kay McMahon. 1999. “Volunteerism and mortality among the community-dwelling elderly.” Journal of Health Psychology, 4:301-316
 The Compass of Pleasure: How Our Brains Make Fatty Foods, Orgasm, Exercise, Marijuana, Generosity, Vodka, Learning, and Gambling Feel So Good by David J. Linden (2011)
By The People: A History of Americans as Volunteers, New Century Edition by Susan Ellis (2006)