This is the secret to feeling so much happier, according to Harvard scientists

In one way or another, we’re all constantly in pursuit of happiness, contentment, and wellbeing. It’s an elusive quest, as many of the activities and substances we think will bring us happiness, such as alcohol or an entire weekend spent binging Netflix or playing video games, usually end up leaving us even more restless.

So, what’s a surefire way to feel good? According to a new study, the answer is quite simple: volunteer to help others. The research, led by Harvard University researcher Eric S. Kim, Ph.D., found that older adults over the age of 50 who regularly volunteer to help other people enjoy an elevated sense of wellbeing.

As if that wasn’t enough to convince you, the research also discovered that routinely helping other people is associated with a lower overall risk of death, diminished odds of developing health complications, and higher levels of physical activity and exercise.

An individual should volunteer to help others roughly 100 hours per year (two hours each week) to reap these rewards. 

“Humans are social creatures by nature. Perhaps this is why our minds and bodies are rewarded when we give to others. Our results show that volunteerism among older adults doesn’t just strengthen communities, but enriches our own lives by strengthening our bonds to others, helping us feel a sense of purpose and well-being, and protecting us from feelings of loneliness, depression, and hopelessness. Regular altruistic activity reduces our risk of death even though our study didn’t show any direct impact on a wide array of chronic conditions,” explains Dr. Kim, who is a member of the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences and Lee Kum Sheung Center for Health and Happiness, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Boston; and the Human Flourishing Program, Institute for Quantitative Social Science, Harvard University.

There’s been lots of research conducted on the benefits of volunteering and helping others in the past, but most of those projects have yielded inconsistent results. Up until now, there had never been a conclusive enough study to warrant the development of volunteering wellness programs. For instance, with these results in mind, physicians and mental health professionals may want to consider recommending volunteer work to patients in search of some positivity in their lives.

This was no small study; data, interviews, and survey answers from close to 13,000 U.S. adults were analyzed. All participants were tracked for four years sometime between 2010 and 2016. Then, the influence of volunteering on each person’s physical and mental health was assessed via 34 different physical and emotional outcomes. This approach allowed the study’s authors to directly compare results among individual volunteers and identify which “outcomes” (happiness, sadness, relaxation, cancer, heart disease, etc) volunteering may affect.

It’s important to note that while the research did reveal an association between volunteering to help other people and lower overall risk of death, there were no connections found regarding volunteer work and specific improvements to, or lower risk of developing, conditions like cancer, obesity, stroke, lung disease, cognitive problems, and chronic pain.

It’s no secret that as modern medicine and technology continue to evolve and advance at a rapid rate, people all over the world are living longer than ever before. With this in mind, the research team says that encouraging, advertising, and creating more volunteer opportunities for older adults is a great way to simultaneously help others, improve society, and foster strong mental and physical health among the growing global population of older individuals.

Of course, just like virtually every other aspect of life right now, COVID-19 has thrown somewhat of a wrench into these findings. This study was conducted before the coronavirus emerged on the world scene, and the study’s authors caution that volunteering may be too risky right now if it requires close contact with others. That being said, if you can volunteer and help people while staying safe, Dr. Kim says it may be a more rewarding endeavor than ever right now.

“Now might be a particular moment in history when society needs your service the most. If you are able to do so while abiding by health guidelines, you not only can help to heal and repair the world, but you can help yourself as well. When the COVID-19 crisis finally subsides, we have a chance to create policies and civic structures that enable more giving in society. Some cities were already pioneering this idea before the pandemic and quarantine, and I hope we have the willingness and resolve to do so in a post-COVID-19 society as well,” Dr. Kim concludes.

The full study can be found here, published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.