Why Helping Others Makes Us Happy

Pursuing self-interested goals drives ongoing community engagement and raises self-esteem.


Linda Fried, a professor of public health at Columbia University Medical Center, says increased longevity raises the need to find engaging activities in our later years. "We've added 30 years to human life expectancy in this country over the past 100 years," she says. "What will it take to keep people healthy and happy in these longer lives? Well, there is actually a burgeoning amount of evidence that there are a number of factors."

"One of them is staying physically active and one of them is staying socially active," she says. Volunteering helps achieve both goals. The social networks of people tend to decline as they age; family and friends move away or die. Volunteering can replace these ties and their well-being and happiness benefits.

"The other thing that is really important to people, particularly as they get older, is that they feel they've made a difference being on the planet," Fried says. "That's a deeply personal sense of meaning, particularly as people take stock of their lives as they get older."

In her medical practice with older people, Fried discovered that there was a lack of volunteer opportunities for them that could provide a good combination of these benefits. "I realized there was a dearth of roles for older adults in our society ... where they could make a difference." She acted on her perception and co-founded Experience Corps, which has evolved into a highly acclaimed volunteer model for older people who mentor younger school-age children in at-risk communities.

Now in more than 20 cities, Experience Corps provides training and financial stipends to its volunteers. Their mentoring activities are also structured to produce tangible educational and social benefits to children. It can be challenging work, but the resulting outcomes provide mentors with a meaningful benefit. At the same time, volunteers also derive social networking benefits.

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People often get into volunteer work because a friend asks them, and that can be a fine entry point. But people should also do some work to make sure the organization is a good fit for their interests and that the work they would be doing is also a good fit, says Omoto. "What's the optimal match for me?" is a question to ask, he says.

Further, if there is a jumble of factors motivating people to consider volunteering, they might want to reconsider. "When people have multiple motivations, it is harder for them to be satisfied," Omoto says. "It is easier to derive happiness when your goals are simpler."

"Concern for others and concern for yourself can complement one another," Snyder says. "Find a way to do good for others at the same time as you do good for yourself," he advises. "Make volunteering a part of your social life and embed it in your social network."

Corrected on 4/5/2012: A previous version of this story incorrectly misspelled Allen Omoto’s last name.