Research Article| Volume 59, ISSUE 2, P176-186, August 2020

Volunteering and Subsequent Health and Well-Being in Older Adults: An Outcome-Wide Longitudinal Approach

  • Eric S. Kim
    Address correspondence to: Eric S. Kim, PhD, Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, 677 Huntington Avenue, Boston MA 02215.
    Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Boston, Massachusetts

    Lee Kum Sheung Center for Health and Happiness, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Boston, Massachusetts

    Human Flourishing Program, Institute for Quantitative Social Science, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts
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  • Ashley V. Whillans
    Negotiation, Organizations, and Markets Unit, Harvard Business School, Cambridge, Massachusetts
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  • Matthew T. Lee
    Human Flourishing Program, Institute for Quantitative Social Science, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts
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  • Ying Chen
    Human Flourishing Program, Institute for Quantitative Social Science, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts

    Department of Epidemiology, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Boston, Massachusetts
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  • Tyler J. VanderWeele
    Human Flourishing Program, Institute for Quantitative Social Science, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts

    Department of Epidemiology, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Boston, Massachusetts

    Department of Biostatistics, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Boston, Massachusetts
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      Growing evidence documents strong associations between volunteering and favorable health and well-being outcomes. However, epidemiological studies have not evaluated whether changes in volunteering are associated with subsequent health and well-being outcomes.


      Data were from 12,998 participants in the Health and Retirement Study—a large, diverse, prospective, and nationally representative cohort of U.S. adults aged >50 years. Using multiple logistic, linear, and generalized linear regression models, this study evaluated if changes in volunteering (between t0, 2006/2008 and t1, 2010/2012) were associated with 34 indicators of physical health, health behaviors, and psychosocial well-being (in t2, 2014/2016). Models adjusted for sociodemographics, physical health, health behaviors, psychosocial factors, and personality, as well as volunteering and all outcomes in the prebaseline wave (t0, 2006/2008). Results accounted for multiple testing and data were analyzed in 2019.


      During the 4-year follow-up period, participants who volunteered ≥100 hours/year (versus 0 hours/year) had a reduced risk of mortality and physical functioning limitations, higher physical activity, and better psychosocial outcomes (higher: positive affect, optimism, and purpose in life; lower: depressive symptoms, hopelessness, loneliness, and infrequent contact with friends). Volunteering was not associated with other physical health outcomes (diabetes, hypertension, stroke, cancer, heart disease, lung disease, arthritis, overweight/obesity, cognitive impairment, and chronic pain), health behaviors (binge drinking, smoking, and sleep problems), or psychosocial outcomes (life satisfaction, mastery, health/financial mastery, depression, negative affect, perceived constraints, and contact with other family/children).


      With further research, volunteering is an activity that physicians might suggest to their willing and able patients as a way of simultaneously enhancing health and society.
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