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by Donald B. Ardell, Ph. D.
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Wellness in the Headlines
(Don's Report to the World)

A Skeptical Look at Volunteering

Saturday July 1, 2006

"No matter how cynical you get, it is impossible to keep up."
~Lily Tomlin


National Volunteers Week was marked again this year by the many and varied organizations that utilize volunteers. Americans are big on the practice of volunteering - the latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics put the 2005 volunteer total at 64.5 million.

Defined as "To do charitable or helpful work without pay" by one group, it seems Americans perform such labor at twice the rate noted in most developed countries, including Canada. Almost everyone considers volunteering a good thing. A Florida study showed that senior citizens who volunteer a few hours a week are happier and healthier than those who don't. Hopefully, this happiness is related to the volunteer activity and not just the fact that seniors need to keep busy doing something - anything. It would be nice if such beneficial effects also occur with other age groups, since public high school students in Florida are required to perform 200 hours of community service. However, if such service is "required," a cynic wonders, "Is it really voluntary?" Also, a strong self-interest factor exists for high school students -- "volunteer" service is a well-recognized factor used by selection committees at prestigious universities to screen applicants.

So, we might want to look at volunteering from two perspectives: for retired older folks, and for everyone else. For the former, it seems a good thing, for it appears to do as much for the volunteers as those served. In varied studies, elderly volunteers score better in three categories of well-being, namely functional status, self-rated health and non-depression. This will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the wellness "meaning and purpose" literature. Irving Yalom and Viktor Frankl, authors of "Existential Psychotherapy" and "Man's Search for Meaning," respectively, advise selfless service to others as a well-worn path to happiness and good health.

Most volunteers are affiliated with religious institutions. This suggests (to the cynic) that, like the Florida high school students trying to get into Harvard, Yale or Princeton, many seniors who volunteer might be boosting their resumes to improve the chances of being admitted into Paradise. 

Should motives count in handing out kudos for volunteering? I think so. The person who does it with no expectation of reward surely is more worthy of our regard than someone performing community service in lieu of jail time, or as a way of winning souls or to boost chances to get a paid job and so on.

Wellness seekers might view varied volunteer study results and wonder, "What is it about volunteering that leads to better health, assuming that it does? Is it the social interaction that comes with volunteer work, as the Florida study authors claim? Or, is it, as some researchers suggest, that volunteering provides "added power, prestige and resources, and heightens a sense of identity" in the volunteer?" Naturally, all investigators believe more study is warranted and that their research along these lines should be funded immediately!

If more research is done, I hope investigators will look more deeply into volunteerism than simply its effects on the health of the volunteers. How about looking at the possible downsides of voluntarism, beginning with this one: "If a job's worth doing, why shouldn't someone be paid for it?" Sorry if that shocks you, but I'm not the first to wonder if some aspects of charity work do not create as well as ameliorate problems. For instance, does the assistance provided by volunteers relieve the state or its agents of responsibility to care for the needy? Does voluntarism enable some institutions to dodge their responsibilities? Why not collect sufficient taxes to enable professional services to the needy, rather than giving tax breaks for charities. Does volunteer work not treat symptoms more than causes of varied problems?

A classic example from the Dickens era might be the social maven's much heralded hours of volunteer assistance in a soup line feeding the wretched masses, thereby relieving the burden of caring for the poor that otherwise would fall to relatives, local councils and/or the townspeople. Is the same dynamic not as applicable today with respect to the homeless, those suffering dread diseases or those in need of cures? Do unpaid, untrained and unaccountable amateurs filling varied social stopgaps delay the assignment of a professional class to the tasks? The latter might otherwise be funded by the state and, given their added training, deal more effectively with the problems. I think volunteers and those who recruit them should consider such questions.

Furthermore, if it is true that volunteers find added meaning in life by being of service and if they do indeed get healthier in at least three different ways, as the Florida investigators claim, should they not pay for the privilege? Certainly the poor could use the money! In fact, some groups recognize this situation and take payback steps as a result. Earthwatch Institute, an international non-profit organization that brings science to life for people concerned about the Earth's future, requires volunteers to pay for the experiences it affords. Many medical groups that travel around third-world countries follow the same "pay to volunteer" policy, and use the funds to advance their causes.

If YOU plan to volunteer, here are a few considerations to take into account before showing up on day one:

All that said, "hail to the volunteers" who do good work and the organizations that utilize and channel their exceptional energies. Let's always look, however, for "upstream" ways to deal with problems at the foundation level, not with symptom amelioration. One more thing -- look on the bright side.

(Note: This essay appeared is updated from an essay that ran on July 16, 2003 entitled "Volunteerism Is A Good Thing -- To A Point, But Don't Overdo Or Overestimate It.")

Domain: purpose
Subdomain: applied wellness

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