The results call into question the practice of
encouraging people to do volunteer work for their own good, but also
suggest approaches to encouraging those without a typical volunteer
personality to find ways of contributing.
The bottom line, said senior study author Thomas Oltmanns, a
psychologist at Washington University in St. Louis, is that "when
people are considering volunteering, there are obvious benefits
associated, including to society – people volunteer for many other
reasons than just helping themselves.”
It’s well known that people with certain traits are more likely to
volunteer. But “those characteristics are also by themselves
associated with better health,” Oltmanns told Reuters Health.
In the past, researchers who linked apparent health benefits to
volunteer work did not factor in the personality traits that go
along with the urge to volunteer, Oltmanns’ team points out in the
Journals of Gerontology: Series B.
To tease apart the health effects of those personality traits and
the volunteering itself, the researchers used data from the St.
Louis Personality and Aging Network, a study of 1,630 adults between
the ages of 55 and 64 in the St. Louis community.
Participants answered a questionnaire that included information
about whether they currently volunteered, if so, how long they had
been doing it and how many hours per week they spent volunteering.
The team also assessed personality traits based on the
questionnaire, and used a 36-item survey to gauge aspects of mental
and physical health and functioning.
Analyzing these data, the study team found that volunteering was
linked to better health. But when personality traits were taken into
account, the link disappeared. The health benefits were all
explained by the personality traits, not the volunteering.
Regardless of whether they volunteered, people who were more
outgoing had better mental health. And those who were less
“neurotic” — meaning anxious, guilty and envious — had better
physical functioning and mental health.
“We need to keep in mind that different kinds of personality
characteristics are associated with volunteering,” Oltmanns said.
“If extroverts volunteer, maybe we should find a way to reach people
who are more introverted, and under circumstances those people would
be more likely to volunteer.”
“The link between volunteering and health shows there is a
connection; our study goes toward finding more opportunities for
people to volunteer in ways that suit their personality, maybe
people who wouldn’t (usually) volunteer,” Oltmanns said.
For instance, he offered, situations “where people find it more
compatible, where you don’t have to be extroverted,” such as
volunteering to do data entry for an organization. That’s an example
of a volunteer activity he has found that some introverts enjoy.
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But circumstances beyond personality often factor into whether or
not someone volunteers, as well. Among these, life’s transitions — such as the death of a spouse or retirement — can have an impact, he
“Personality traits that make people more or less likely to
volunteer may actually be different before and after (a
transition),” Oltmanns said.
In a subsequent issue of the same journal, another study examines
how volunteering ties into a role many people adopt later in life:
Being a grandparent.
It found that grandparents who lived with and cared for
grandchildren were less likely to volunteer than grandparents who
took care of grandkids, but didn’t live with them. The results were
based on a sample of 13,785 people over age 50 who had
A likely explanation is that “intensive caregiving
responsibilities may make older adults less able to engage in formal
volunteer work,” said the study’s lead author Jennifer Roebuck
Bulanda, a sociologist at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.
That doesn’t mean that family caregivers don’t reap the benefits of
volunteering, according to Bulanda. Instead, it may indicate that
the definition of volunteering should be expanded to better capture
the many ways people serve others.
“Our study means something important for policies attempting to
encourage volunteerism. These policies tend to focus on increasing
formal volunteerism, which neglects to include family labor,”
Bulanda told Reuters Health in an email.
Under that definition, Bulanda said, “raising one’s grandchildren
would not be considered volunteer work,” despite the fact that many
family caregivers are “drafted volunteers,” she said.
Source: http://bit.ly/1pMm7cI and
Journals of Gerontology:
Series B, online April 5, 2014 and April 10, 2014.
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