Why Community Service Is Good for the Brain
The health benefits of community service are well-documented. Still, we sometimes need to be reminded how important it is to leave our comfy inner circle and engage with new people. The more we internalize the boons of altruistic behavior, researchers are discovering, the longer we live and the happier we are.
Most research on community service has been done on older populations or people with disabilities:
“Among its numerous benefits, volunteering is a strategy to combat loneliness and isolation in older adults, especially when such volunteering affords the opportunity to meet new people and increase social interactions,” writes Jennifer A. Crittenden in Volunteering as a Strategy for Combatting Social Isolation. “For individuals with disabilities in particular, volunteering serves to create and reinforce a positive sense of self and provide an avenue to increase a sense of control in their lives.”
But new research on a wider range of backgrounds, genders, and ages is mounting.
For instance, “voluntourism” has become a popular phenomenon in the past decade, engaging over 10 million people and generating billions in revenue each year.
Here’s an overview of some of the current research on community service and how it benefits the brain, body, and spirit.
Benefits of Community Service
Researchers at Ghent University studied over 40,000 Europeans from 29 countries to measure the relationship between volunteering, employment, and health. Their results, published in the journal PLOS ONE, show that volunteering is associated with better employment and health outcomes, even after controlling for gender, age, education level, and other variables. The study was based on data from the sixth round of the European Social Survey.
“Firstly, volunteering may improve access to psychological resources (such as self-esteem and self-efficacy) and social resources (such as social integration and access to support and information), both of which are found to have an overall positive effect on health,” explains lead author and professor Sara Willems.
“Secondly, volunteering increases physical and cognitive activity, which protects against functional decline and dementia in old age. Finally, neuroscience research has related volunteering to the release of the caregiving-related hormones oxytocin and progesterone, which have the capacity to regulate stress and inflammation.”
In addition to mental health, physical health is affected positively by community service work. A growing body of evidence shows volunteering can lead to lower blood pressure and a longer lifespan.
Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University found that adults over age 50 who volunteered on a regular basis were less likely to develop high blood pressure than non-volunteers. This is significant as high blood pressure (or hypertension) can lead to heart disease, stroke, and premature death.
The study showed that older adults who volunteered for at least 200 hours per year decreased their risk of hypertension, or high blood pressure, by 40 percent.
The researchers conclude that “volunteer work may be an effective non-pharmaceutical option to help prevent the condition.”
Preventing substance abuse
In an important 2017 study from the University of Missouri-Columbia, researchers found that volunteering may prevent substance abuse for female student-athletes.
The research team tracked Division III women student-athletes’ social and health behaviors over a five-year period, while athletes self-reported their helping behaviors such as “willingness to volunteer” as well as their individual alcohol and marijuana use.
Female student-athletes who volunteered in their communities and engaged in helping behaviors were less likely to partake in dangerous alcohol and marijuana use.
Similarly, a Case Western Reserve University team found that participating in community service activities and helping others also helps alcoholics and other addicts become and stay sober.
The researchers credit the “helper therapy principle (HTP)” as a means of “diminishing egocentrism or selfishness,” one of the root causes of addiction.
Volunteering helps you live longer, but researchers are also finding that why you volunteer affects how much longer exactly.
A team at the University of Michigan found that people with altruistic community service motivations lived longer than people whose community service motivations were selfish.
People who volunteered for personal benefit were marginally more likely to have died after four years. Notably, these people were just as likely to die as those who didn’t volunteer at all.
According to the researchers, “personal benefit” includes volunteering for social contact, to get out of the house, to escape one’s own problems, or to explore one’s own strengths.
“Of course, it’s reasonable for volunteers to expect some benefits for themselves,” the team explains. “But it’s ironic that the potential health benefits of volunteering are significantly reduced if self-benefit becomes a person’s main motive.”
A 2019 University of Otago study found that simple acts of kindnesssimple acts of kindnesssimple acts of kindness help not only the recipients but also the people offering them. Studying the behavior of residents after the Christchurch terror attacks, they saw that small acts of community service like home-cooked meals “not only benefited victims but strengthened the well-being and resilience of those giving them.”
“There’s a growing body of evidence that shows civic engagement is not just good for the people we are helping, but also for our own well-being,” explains lead author and psychologist Dr Jill Hayhurst. “This research shows that one way to ensure we are able to confront challenges or adversity in our future is by getting involved in your community, volunteering, or helping a neighbor.”
Civic intentions, in particular—things like planning to volunteer and help the community in the future, community belonging, social trust, generosity, and helping a neighbor—made a difference.
“As people face more and more challenges, in terms of environmental factors like poverty and climate change, as well as mental health issues, the potential for simple programmes like community service to improve resilience is really exciting,” she says.
Benefits of Social Connection
When it comes down to it, community service is simply one expression of social connection. That’s really why it’s so good for the brain. We’re social creatures despite our introverted or extraverted tendencies.
In a recent episode of the Tim Ferriss podcast, Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, said that if she could write one message on a billboard to display to the world, it would be the following: “Only connect.”
She went on to explain that, in her view, feeling connected on a deep level to others is all that matters at the end of the day. It can be to the author of your favorite book or the person you live with—as long as you’re cultivating that sense of belonging.
Stanford’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education sports some very useful stats on its website:
The dangers of low social connection are worse for health than smoking, hypertension, or obesity; cause higher inflammation at the cellular level; create a higher susceptibility to anxiety and depression; slow down disease recovery; increase anti-social behavior and violence; and lead to suicide.
The benefits of high social connection include a 50% higher chance of longevity; stronger gene expression for immunity; lower rates of anxiety and depression; higher self-esteem and empathy; better emotion regulation skills; and a positive feedback loop of social, emotional, and physical well-being.
Although loneliness is on the rise worldwide, its anti-dote isn’t necessarily having tons of friends. It could be one or two close connections. Or simply feeling connected. The benefits are more subjective than being popular on paper:
“As long as you feel connected to others on the inside, you still get the benefit of being connected,” says Science Director Emma Seppala, PhD. “Think of children who run up to play with children they don’t know. They feel connected from within.”
Jane E. Dutton, PhD, who studies high-quality social connections, defines connection this way:
“The dynamic, living tissue that exists between two people when there is some contact between them involving mutual awareness and social interaction. The existence of some interaction means that individuals have affected one another in some way, giving connections a temporal as well as an emotional dimension.”
In the late 90s, Edward Hallowell, MD, published a book called Connect, in which he wrote:
“A five-minute conversation can make all the difference in the world if the parties participate actively. To make it work, you have to set aside what you’re doing, put down the memo you were reading, disengage from your laptop, abandon your daydream and bring your attention to bear upon the person you are with. Usually, when you do this, the other person (or people) will feel the energy and respond in kind, naturally.”
So, what are some ways to increase our social connectedness?
Be fully present
As outlined above, being present is important. When we are fully connected with the person we’re interacting with, we’re more likely to receive and give the emotional, spiritual, mental, and physical benefits of social connection.
Swap self-concern with curiosity
Carrie Barron, MD, author of The Creativity Cure, has some great advice on this issue: “Trade self-consciousness for interest in the other person,” she writes. “Be in a conversation rather than putting on a performance. This is a version of emotional altruism—and altruism is a ‘healthy defense.’”
Similar to the last one, so much of connection is about trust, and the fastest way to show someone they can trust you is to show a true interest in them. Not once but consistently, over time.
Dale Carnegie, author of How to Win Friends and Influence People, said: “You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you.”
Offer to help
Yes, volunteer. But also be generous with your time in general and adopt a “gift mindset” in most situations. Scott Dinsmore, founder of Live Your Legend, puts it this way:
“If you spent 100 percent of your waking hours thinking about how you can help absolutely everyone you come in contact with—from the woman who makes your latte, to the top authority in your industry—you will find everything else tends to take care of itself.”
Connect frequently and deeply
In terms of connectedness, quantity is about how often you connect, not how many friends you have. It should be regularly for the greatest impact on your well-being. Set aside time in your schedule simply for connecting with others, without any plans to get anything out of it except the enjoyment of connection itself.
“How often you socialize is very important,” writes Elizabeth Pappadopulous, PhD. “Try to connect with someone on a more frequent basis. Maybe call a friend for a quick chat during your lunch hour—even that brief interaction may make a difference in how you feel. Or email or text someone or—better yet—get together with a dear friend or family member in person.”
It’s also about how deeply you connect. Steer away from small talk and discuss what’s around you, in the current setting; discuss ideas; share stories; explore hopes and fears and joys. Doing so will enhance your bond with others more quickly. Ask people more often how they are feeling, or how something made them feel, rather than spending so much time on what they’ve been doing or plan to do. You’ll notice a big difference in the way you get to know each other better.
The scientific community confirms the importance of community services, so it’s time for us to start taking community service activities more seriously on our professional and personal journeys. It’s never too late to volunteer just a few hours of your time per month or to get involved on a daily basis. There’s no shortage of opportunities—you just have to know where to look.
If you’re interested in a community service course, check out some of Open Colleges’ online course offerings. You can study community services, mental health, community rehabilitation, youth work, and more. Even if you’re simply exploring community service ideas and opportunities, taking a course here and there is a good place to start.