Good Works, Good Effects? Volunteering, Stress & Emotions in Older Adults

Posted:August 16, 2019

In addition to helping others, older adults who volunteer may gain a benefit to their own well-being. A recent study explored the relationship between volunteering and stress.

For this study, the researchers used data from the National Study of Daily Experiences. The participants were 1,320 adults age 50 to 84 who completed a daily interview for eight consecutive days. In the interviews, participants reported how much they experienced 14 negative and 13 positive emotions throughout the day, whether they experienced each of seven common stressors, and whether they performed unpaid, formal volunteer work, such as in a senior center or church. The researchers also accounted for other activities that might influence emotional experiences, such as work or exercise.

As expected, participants tended to report more negative and less positive emotions on days they reported more stressors. Volunteering, on the other hand, did not appear to influence daily emotional experiences. However, there was an interesting association between volunteering and stress. Specifically, participants tended to report fewer negative emotions on stressful days if they had volunteered that day or the previous day than if they had not volunteered. In other words, participants were less affected by daily stressors on days that they spent time volunteering, and this effect lasted for at least a day.

Another interesting finding was that participants reported more stressors on days they volunteered. Because volunteering also influenced stress responses on the following day, the researchers argued that volunteering may be a “positive” or “challenge” stressor that enhances well-being rather than reducing it.

These findings add to previous reports that have found volunteering to be beneficial for well-being, such as reduced risk of cardiovascular disease. Volunteer opportunities can keep older adults engaged in the community and provide meaningful experiences. With the added benefit of stress management, older adults may want to look for ways to volunteer if they do not already.

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