Health Benefits of Volunteering

A consistent finding in the literature on volunteering is that volunteers report better health than non-volunteers. It is often argued that this result not only implies that health facilitates volunteering activity, but that volunteering is also a way for individuals to maintain their health, avoid decline or even to enhance their health. While a large body of research has examined the relationship between volunteering and health, the evidence is in fact far from conclusive because previous research has often failed to address the direction of causality adequately. The relation between volunteering and health may be the result of (a) selection of more healthy people into volunteering; (b) a causal influence of volunteering on health; or (c) both. Also it is unclear which factors produce the health benefits of volunteering, and which types of volunteering have the strongest health benefits.

This study, funded by the Ministry of Health, Well Being and Sports, will add important insights on the causality in the relationship between volunteering and health:

  1. Causation and selection processes will be disentangled, such that it becomes clear to what extent volunteering actually benefits health;
  2. Health benefits of different types of volunteering will be examined separately, such that it becomes clear which organizations and which tasks benefit the health of volunteers the most;
  3. Three alternative explanations of the health benefits of volunteering will be tested, such that it becomes clear why volunteering benefits health, and why some types of volunteering are more beneficial than others.

The results of these analyses enable informed decisions by policy makers and health professionals in the promotion of volunteering as a way to support health in old age.

The data that will be used in the research are from the Longitudinal Ageing Study Amsterdam (LASA), a nationally representative random sample panel survey among the elderly (aged 55 and older) in the Netherlands. Permission to use this dataset has been obtained; no additional data collection is needed to complete the research. The research will be conducted from July to December 2011.

Co-investigators: Arjen de Wit (intern), Marja Aartsen (Sociology).

More information about the research project is in the research proposal.

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