Multiple Gains from Making Friends, Doing Good Deeds, and Being in Nature
Keep Moving, Live with Purpose, Cultivate Social Connections
Keep Moving is one of nine healthy lifestyle choices that nurtures body, mind, and spirit. Numerous studies link volunteering with positive physical and mental health outcomes in mid-life and later. Surprisingly, research has minimally addressed the health outcomes of environmental volunteering. Until 2010, no long-term studies of the health effects of environmental volunteering had been reported. Potential benefits of environmental volunteering include increased physical activity, increased sense of purpose, enhanced social integration, and enhanced psychological well-being due to greater connection with nature. Karl Pillemer at Cornell University and colleagues used data collected from a representative sample of 6,928 adults between 1965 and 1994 for the Alameda County Health Study in California. Statistical models showed that volunteering significantly predicted increased physical activity. The effect was greater for environmental volunteering than other types of volunteering, even after accounting for possible confounding effects. Environmental problems are increasingly pervasive on public lands in the U.S., while shrinking federal government budgets limit addressing those problems. Thus, environmental volunteering could be a win-win-win for the federal agencies, the environment, and the volunteers.
Researchers at the University of Essex surveyed volunteers in Wales to investigate the impact of environmental volunteering on behaviors and attitudes about the environment. The main direct benefit for environmental volunteering appeared to be more contact with nature. The researchers also found that volunteering for conservation activities led to behavioral changes that evidently improved the volunteers’ physical health and psychological well-being.
I have volunteered for a nonprofit environmental group in Boulder, Colorado, the past 15 years. The mission of Wildlands Restoration Volunteers (WRV) is to heal the land and create community. Happily, the mission truly guides the projects that WRV undertakes. From my personal experience with WRV, environmental volunteering can produce health and well-being benefits in four ways. First, working on WRV projects almost always involves substantial physical activity. Second, working on WRV projects is purposeful as volunteers accomplish a worthy goal. Surveys show that WRV volunteers highly value doing something meaningful for the environment, such as planting trees and shrubs to help stabilize stream banks. Third, WRV volunteers are cheerful, upbeat, can-do people with a positive mental attitude. That attitude is infectious. Numerous studies show that a positive mental attitude, especially the aspects of optimism, gratitude, and forgiveness, predicts better health and well-being. Fourth, volunteers, especially those who participate in many projects, cultivate social connections with other volunteers. The resulting friendships can foster a host of well-being benefits.
I urge you to find ways to volunteer, especially in an environmental setting. You’ll do yourself and the environment a world of good.