Acts Of Kindness

The top line: People who care for others’ well-being through acts of altruism, volunteering, or formation of communal relationships seem to be happier and less depressed. This seems to be especially true in older individuals.

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Most people who care for others in a selfless manner do so because of a genuine desire to help and improve the world around them. Nonetheless, modern psychological research has shown that caring has benefits for all involved; people who volunteer or care for others on a consistent basis tend to have better psychological well-being, including fewer depressive symptoms and higher life-satisfaction. Caring behavior even has physiological benefits, as current research shows that individuals who receive social support (a form of caring behavior) are more protected from disease and even death (e.g., Broadhead et al., 1983).

Although “caring” can involve volunteering as part of an organised group or club, can be as simple as reaching out to a workmate or classmate who looks lonely or is struggling with an issue. Studies show that people who reach out like this can benefit in multiple ways. Some individuals care for others through acts of altruism and organised volunteering, while others prefer monetary donations and engagement in communal relationships. The majority of studies agree that there is a significant association between caring for other’s well-being and increased positive affect. Several studies have found that this correlation appears to be highest in older adults who participate in volunteer activities (Morrow-Howell et al., 2003; Wheeler et al., 1998).

The same level of correlation has not been found in younger adults as a whole. Yet, a subgroup of younger adults who engage in sustained volunteering over long periods of time do in fact have higher levels of psychological well-being (Wheeler et al., 1998). The authors of this study speculated that many young adults who volunteer for short periods of time may have been encouraged to volunteer by their schools or did so to boost their chances of getting into college. In contrast, older volunteers tend to cite moral responsibility. This suggests that “intrinsically motivated” volunteers, i.e. those who are more motivated for the sake of volunteering itself, feel more satisfaction than “extrinsically motivated” volunteers (Midlarsky, Kahana, 1993).