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Doing Well by Doing Good

On September 11 the results of evil intentions were all too apparent. Yet hundreds of stories emerged about good intentions, self-sacrifice, and heroism. Police and firefighters saving lives and losing their own at New York City's collapsing World Trade Center. People on a doomed flight resisting armed hijackers to save lives on the ground. Much more typically, people all over the country lined up to donate blood. People phoned and sent messages. Concerts and memorial services were held. Everybody wanted to help.

In hard times, are you better off to think of others or concentrate on yourself? You may be surprised to learn that there's scientific evidence that altruism—concern for others—pays back plentifully. Chimpanzees, elephants, even bees take care of each other. So do human beings, and everybody is better off for it. Of course, gain for oneself is not uppermost in the mind of a true altruist. But you'll get benefits whether or not you seek them.

Volunteering for community service may actually help prolong your life. It can boost vitality and self-esteem. Researchers at the University of Michigan recently reported that retired people who volunteered just 40 hours a year tended to live longer, compared with those who never did community service. A study of 762 retired people, conducted at Cornell University and presented to the American Sociological Association in 1999, found that volunteers were happier than nonvolunteers, and had more energy and a greater sense of control over their lives. A Harvard study found that older people with productive activities, including volunteering, improved their chances of living a long life as much as those who engaged in fitness activities. Con-structive work confers a sense of well-being and identity. If your social support system is thin, volunteering can provide you with chances to make friends. Although people of all ages can benefit, older people—especially the retired—seem to benefit the most.

"The third age" may be give-back time

Some scientists question all this, however. Could it be that healthy, optimistic, energetic people are the ones who volunteer in the first place? This is no doubt part of the explanation.

And yet it's obvious that there's a lot to gain by volunteering. In Canada almost one in four of those over 65 do volunteer work (in the U.S. the proportion is slightly lower, about one in five). According to a government survey these older Canadians enjoy an improved quality of life, stronger social networks, and increased physical activity. "The third age of human development" is what one commentator calls retirement: "a time when we can give back to society the lessons, the wisdom, and the resources we have derived... throughout our lives." The desire to give back (that is, altruism) is surely a sign of health—a chance to do what you lacked time and wisdom to do at earlier stages of life.

If you would like to volunteer, try the organizations and resources listed below. Watch your local newspapers for calls for volunteers. Nursing homes or isolated older adults without families may need people to run errands or to read aloud. If you know someone who's caring for a chronically ill family member, you may be able to help out. Shelters may need cooks or people to serve meals or sort clothing.

Many who've never volunteered are shy about beginning. Depending on the organization, it can be a bit like applying for a paying job. Some people start a program only to realize they would prefer to be somewhere else—you may need to shop around. The important thing is not to get discouraged. There are plenty of niches to fill.

A few suggestions for happy volunteering

Try to pick a match for yourself. If you know something about accounting, law, carpentry, sewing, or coping with the health-care system, or if you have musical talent, find out where your expertise can be useful.

Find an organization where you already have friends, or more important, an organization that knows how to put you to work effectively. The American Red Cross and your local blood bank, for example, have long experience in employing volunteers effectively. Local libraries and museums may also need help—and know how to use it.

If you have a car and enjoy driving, many charitable organizations need drivers—Meals on Wheels, for example. Your local hospital may need drivers for outpatients coming for treatment.

Here are some resources: SeniorCorps (800-424-8867), Administration on Aging,, Volunteermatch, Habitat for Humanity (229-924-6935),,, and Elderhostel (877-426-8056).


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