Around the globe, millions of people step up every day to help others, from feeding the homeless to rebuilding communities and caring for war-zone orphans. In the United States, about 1 in 4 adults volunteered at least once in 2014, with Americans devoting a median of 50 hours a year to churches, community service agencies, youth groups, schools and other organizations.

As the United Nations Volunteers program has noted, "volunteer action is found the world over and is huge."

There's little question that volunteerism has life-saving or life-changing benefits for recipients worldwide, whether they’re hungry, displaced or otherwise disadvantaged.

But does helping others benefit the volunteers themselves? Before examining why volunteering can be good for you, let’s take a look at what motivates people to help others.

Why Do We Help Others?

Altruism is often described as engaging in behavior that helps another person but carries a cost to the helper. There has been much research into the question of why we help others.

"Humans are an intensely social species, frequently performing costly behaviors that benefit others," noted a study titled The Evolution of Altruism in Humans, which was published in 2015 in the Annual Review of Psychology.

Psychologists have offered differing theories as to the roots of altruism, including:

  • From an evolutionary perspective, the kin selection theory contends that we are altruistic toward our family members because we want them to survive and transmit our genes.
  • What about being altruistic toward people outside of the family, or even strangers? Another notion involves conforming to social expectations; for example, the norm of reciprocity, which states that people feel obligated to return a favor.
  • What about those who are altruistic even when no one is looking? Some neuroscientists contend that the pleasure centers of the brain are activated when a person acts altruistically.
  • The negative-state relief model contends that altruistic behavior alleviates the negative feelings of observing someone in an upsetting situation.

Additionally, recent research has linked altruism to emotional rewards. In a study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology in 2015, children exhibited greater happiness when giving their own candy to a puppet compared with giving away someone else’s candy.

Psychological and Physiological Benefits of Volunteering

Is Volunteering Purely Altruistic?

There are various theories as to why people volunteer, and whether they do so out of pure altruism or a mixture of altruistic and selfish motivations. According to an article published by the American Psychological Association, one team of researchers has identified five main reasons:

  1. Understanding: People volunteer to understand other people, cultures and places.
  2. Personal Development: Developing skills, furthering their careers, challenging themselves and meeting new people are additional reasons people volunteer.
  3. Values: Satisfying personal values, humanitarian concerns or religious affiliations are other motivators.
  4. Esteem Enhancement: Volunteering makes people feel better about themselves.
  5. Community Concern: People often volunteer to help a specific ethnic or neighborhood group to which they have an attachment.

A 2013 analysis of decades of research found that volunteering was associated with decreased rates of depression and mortality. In addition, volunteers tend to report higher levels of well-being and satisfaction, according to researchers from the University of Exeter Medical School in England.

Federal Department of Labor statistics show that rates of volunteerism decline among Americans after age 45. But there may be physiological and psychological benefits for those who continue helping others into their golden years.

A study published in 2013 in the American Psychological Association’s journal Psychology and Aging found that older adults who had volunteered more than 200 hours in the previous year were at lower risk of developing elevated blood pressure compared to non-volunteers.

Frequent volunteers also reported stronger feelings of well-being, the researchers noted.

So, as these studies demonstrate, in helping others, we may also help ourselves physically and mentally.

If you're interested in volunteering, take the time to determine which organizations are the best fit for your skill set, personality, time commitment and motivation. 

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