Who benefits from informal helping?
Given the rising proportion of older people in the US and the documented health benefits of social support, one might think that providing social support to older people would be a sensible way to extend their life span. But might the benefit of social support arise primarily from giving rather than receiving social support? Researchers at the University of Michigan investigated this question using data from the Changing Lives of Older Couples Study. Subjects were drawn as a representative sample of 1,532 married couples in the Detroit metropolitan area. The husband of the couple was at least 65 years old. Individuals were followed over five years or until death.
Giving instrumental support to friends, neighbors, and relatives other than spouses was evaluated with answers to four questions relating to transportation, errands, shopping, house work, child care, and other tasks. Receiving instrumental support was evaluated with the answer to one question regarding the likelihood of receiving help from spouse or relatives. Giving emotional support was measured with answers to four questions regarding whether they made their spouse feel loved and cared for and were willing to listen when their spouse needed to talk. Receiving emotional support was measured with the same two questions altered slightly to ask whether the spouse made the subject feel loved and cared for and if the spouse was willing to listen when the subject spoke.
The results showed that subjects who gave instrumental support to friends, neighbors, and relatives and subjects who gave emotional support to their spouses had a lower risk of mortality over the follow-up period. Receiving support was not associated with reduced mortality when giving support was taken into consideration. Controlling for a number of potentially confounding factors did not alter the results substantially. Thus, this research supports the somewhat counterintuitive idea that the benefit of social support accrues to the giver, not the receiver.
Helping can temper the adverse effects of chronic stress
Given that chronic stress can adversely affect our health, what can we do to defuse the undesirable effects of chronic stress? Recent research suggests a way: help other people. The Changing Lives of Older Couples Study followed for five years members of married couples with the husband at least 65 years of age living in the Detroit metro area. Researchers used data from 846 of the study subjects to determine if helping others altered the relationship between stress and mortality. Among subjects who did not provide help to others during the previous year, stress was associated with a 30 percent increase is risk of dying. But among those who provided help to others, stress was not associated with an increased risk of dying. Thus, helping others eliminated the effect of stress on risk of dying. Most of us probably think that the benefits of helping others apply only to those being helped. This study, however, indicates that the benefits may apply to the persons doing the helping. The documented benefits of developing social support may arise partly from helping others.
Informal volunteering creates more economic value than formal volunteering
Recent reviews noted that little evidence exists regarding informal compared to formal volunteering. Little is known about the individual and societal benefits of informal volunteering. That said, the available evidence suggests that informal volunteering arose out of necessity for early humans to live to see another day. Time diary studies show that informal volunteering is more prevalent than formal volunteering in the US and the UK. Common types of informal volunteering include helping with household chores, shopping, and child care. Traits that seem to promote informal volunteering include empathic concern, moral obligations, role identity, and the desire to help younger persons. People who do formal volunteer work also tend to do informal volunteer work. Studies from Australia and the UK suggest that informal volunteering accounts for more economic value that does formal volunteering. Thus, informal volunteering appears to be common across different countries, includes a wide variety of prosocial behaviors, and provides economic value.
Informal helping by men or women and cardiovascular disease
Prosocial behaviors, such as helping others, tend to benefit both the helper and the helped. This result isn’t surprising given that humans evolved in a milieu where helping others improved their chances of survival. Furthermore, women have been conditioned more than men to help others. Would different types of helping, including formal volunteering, informal volunteering, and caregiving for a parent or spouse, yield similar or different results in terms of reducing risk of mortality or cardiovascular disease? Would women accrue more benefits from helping than men?
Researchers studied this question using data from 11,418 participants with an average of 63 years in the nationally representative Health and Retirement Study. Compared to women who did not report any formal volunteering, women who did had a significant 22 percent lower risk of developing cardiovascular disease over follow-up of up to 10 years and after adjusting for confounding factors. Men did not show a significant decline in cardiovascular risk with formal volunteering. For informal helping, compared to men who reported no informal helping, those who did had a significant 25 percent lower risk of developing cardiovascular disease during follow-up. This result may reflect the fact that more men than women (66 vs. 53 percent) reported doing any informal helping. Women did not show a significant decline in cardiovascular disease risk with informal helping. Neither women nor men caregivers showed a significant decline in cardiovascular disease risk. Thus, the prosocial behaviors of formal volunteering and informal helping may benefit women and men differently.
Informal volunteering don’t get no respect
While numerous studies link formal volunteering to aspects of better health and well-being, relatively few studies address informal volunteering. This form of volunteering differs from formal volunteering in that informal volunteering does not occur under the auspices of an organization. Informal volunteering (also called informal helping) commonly involves neighbors or friends with relatively mundane tasks such as fixing a leaky toilet. A recent critique asserts that informal volunteering does not get the respect it deserves, because it’s often done by women or people of color or with lower socio-economic status. In addition, informal volunteering may not lend itself to being measured or monetized compared to formal volunteering. Ironically, informal volunteering may actually be more common than formal volunteering. Finally, formal volunteering is being corrupted by younger people seeking to build their resumes.
Informal volunteering predicts lower risk of premature death and other benefits
Numerous studies show that formal volunteering (unpaid helping done under the auspices of an organization), predicts health and well-being benefits. But does informal volunteering (unpaid helping not coordinated by an organization) also predict similar benefits? Researchers at the University of British Columbia and Harvard addressed this question using data from 12,988 participants with an average age of 65 years in the nationally representative Health and Retirement Study. Compared to participants who reported no yearly informal volunteering, those who reported at least 100 hours of yearly informal volunteering had a significant 32 percent lower risk of dying during four years of follow-up. Participants with at least 100 hours of yearly informal volunteering also had significantly lower risks of certain adverse outcomes (stroke, physical functioning limitations, cognitive impairment); better health behaviors (frequent physical activity); improved psychological well-being (positive mood, optimism, purpose in life, mastery, health mastery); and improved social factors (more contact with friends). These results accounted for a host of confounding factors. Informal volunteering might promote better health and well-being by building social capital, building reciprocity within social networks, and by aligning with humans’ evolutionary history of mutual support. Looking after your grandkids one day a week might improve your health and well-being.
What moderates the benefits of informal helping?
Higher levels of informal helping predict lower risk of all-cause mortality. Do social structural moderators, including age, gender, race/ethnicity, wealth, income, and education, affect this relationship? The above researchers at the University of British Columbia and Harvard addressed this question with data for 9,662 participants with an average of 72 years at baseline in the Health and Retirement study. Informal helping was categorized as 0, 1-49, 50-99, and more than 100 hours per year. Compared to participants who reported no informal helping, participants who reported 100 or more helping hours per year had lower risk of all-cause mortality. Moderators that significantly reduced the risk of all-cause mortality included female gender, white race/ethnicity, high school or college education, the second through fourth quartiles of income, and the third through fifth quintiles of wealth. Thus, a white woman with a college education and relatively high income and wealth would likely experience the lower risk of all-cause mortality from informal helping. Some research suggests that persons of lower socio-economic status have greater empathy and direct more mental energy to social concerns, such as informal helping. But lack of personal or other resources and life stressors may reduce the benefits of helping behaviors for people of lower social-economic status.
What to do?
Be on the lookout for opportunities to help other people. If you make helping others a key part of your life, you’ll likely live better and longer.