By Allison Bond
NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Volunteerism has been linked to better mental and physical health, but those effects may come from the personality traits that lead one to volunteer in the first place, not the work itself, U.S. researchers say.
The results call into question the practice of encouraging people to do volunteer work for their own good, but also suggest approaches to encouraging those without a typical volunteer personality to find ways of contributing.
The bottom line, said senior study author Thomas Oltmanns, a psychologist at Washington University in St. Louis, is that "when people are considering volunteering, there are obvious benefits associated, including to society – people volunteer for many other reasons than just helping themselves.”
It’s well known that people with certain traits are more likely to volunteer. But “those characteristics are also by themselves associated with better health,” Oltmanns told Reuters Health.
In the past, researchers who linked apparent health benefits to volunteer work did not factor in the personality traits that go along with the urge to volunteer, Oltmanns’ team points out in the Journals of Gerontology: Series B.
To tease apart the health effects of those personality traits and the volunteering itself, the researchers used data from the St. Louis Personality and Aging Network, a study of 1,630 adults between the ages of 55 and 64 in the St. Louis community.
Participants answered a questionnaire that included information about whether they currently volunteered, if so, how long they had been doing it and how many hours per week they spent volunteering.
The team also assessed personality traits based on the questionnaire, and used a 36-item survey to gauge aspects of mental and physical health and functioning.
Analyzing these data, the study team found that volunteering was linked to better health. But when personality traits were taken into account, the link disappeared. The health benefits were all explained by the personality traits, not the volunteering.
Regardless of whether they volunteered, people who were more outgoing had better mental health. And those who were less “neurotic” - meaning anxious, guilty and envious - had better physical functioning and mental health.
“We need to keep in mind that different kinds of personality characteristics are associated with volunteering,” Oltmanns said. “If extroverts volunteer, maybe we should find a way to reach people who are more introverted, and under circumstances those people would be more likely to volunteer.”
“The link between volunteering and health shows there is a connection; our study goes toward finding more opportunities for people to volunteer in ways that suit their personality, maybe people who wouldn’t (usually) volunteer,” Oltmanns said.
For instance, he offered, situations “where people find it more compatible, where you don’t have to be extroverted,” such as volunteering to do data entry for an organization. That’s an example of a volunteer activity he has found that some introverts enjoy.
But circumstances beyond personality often factor into whether or not someone volunteers, as well. Among these, life’s transitions - such as the death of a spouse or retirement - can have an impact, he noted.
“Personality traits that make people more or less likely to volunteer may actually be different before and after (a transition),” Oltmanns said.
In a subsequent issue of the same journal, another study examines how volunteering ties into a role many people adopt later in life: Being a grandparent.
It found that grandparents who lived with and cared for grandchildren were less likely to volunteer than grandparents who took care of grandkids, but didn’t live with them. The results were based on a sample of 13,785 people over age 50 who had grandchildren.
A likely explanation is that “intensive caregiving responsibilities may make older adults less able to engage in formal volunteer work,” said the study’s lead author Jennifer Roebuck Bulanda, a sociologist at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.
That doesn’t mean that family caregivers don’t reap the benefits of volunteering, according to Bulanda. Instead, it may indicate that the definition of volunteering should be expanded to better capture the many ways people serve others.
“Our study means something important for policies attempting to encourage volunteerism. These policies tend to focus on increasing formal volunteerism, which neglects to include family labor,” Bulanda told Reuters Health in an email.
Under that definition, Bulanda said, “raising one’s grandchildren would not be considered volunteer work,” despite the fact that many family caregivers are “drafted volunteers,” she said.
SOURCE: bit.ly/1pMm7cI and bit.ly/1mao2pN Journals of Gerontology: Series B, online April 5, 2014 and April 10, 2014.