This is the secret to happiness, according to Harvard scientists

Caroline Allen
Contributor
It's simpler than you might think. (Getty Images)

Everybody wants to know the secret to happiness. Is it balance? Family? A successful career? These are possibilities we’ve probably all pondered at one point or another.

Thanks to Harvard University, we might be one step closer to answering that all-important question.

The answer? Volunteering to help others.

It’s really that simple, at least that’s what Eric S. Kim, Ph.D. and his team of researchers have found.

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People over the age of 50 who regularly volunteer to help others are reported to have a higher sense of wellbeing than those who don’t.

It’s not all about our sense of wellbeing, either. Helping others has been scientifically proven to improve a myriad of health issues.

It’s associated with a lower risk of death as well as a smaller chance of developing complicated health issues. Helping others is also a catalyst for other improvements to your lifestyle, like an increase in exercise and general physical activity.

But, how much volunteering is actually needed to reap these substantial rewards? Just two hours per week, so the experts say.

That’s 100 hours per year.

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“Humans are social creatures by nature. Perhaps this is why our minds and bodies are rewarded when we give to others,” Dr Kim explains.

“Our results show that volunteerism among older adults doesn’t just strengthen communities, but enriches our own lives by strengthening our bonds to others, helping us feel a sense of purpose and well-being, and protecting us from feelings of loneliness, depression, and hopelessness.

“Regular altruistic activity reduces our risk of death even though our study didn’t show any direct impact on a wide array of chronic conditions.”

We’ve seen studies on the health benefits of volunteering in the past, but this is the first one to conclusively prove that it would be beneficial for companies to develop volunteering wellness programmes for staff members.

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The research is also conclusive enough to suggest that therapists and GPs could add this to their list of suggestions to help patients who are lacking direction or positivity.

The study analysed the data of 13,000 adults and put out various surveys as well as conducting interviews to get a well-rounded view on the subject.

The researchers then looked at the impact volunteering had on each person, studying 34 different physical and emotional cues.

There’s no extra benefit of volunteering is specific areas, either, keeping the options open for people to volunteer based on where their interests are.

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The research was undertaken before the coronavirus pandemic, which makes volunteering a slightly more challenging prospect in the current environment.

Dr Kim says there are ways to approach with caution, though.

“Now might be a particular moment in history when society needs your service the most. If you are able to do so while abiding by health guidelines, you not only can help to heal and repair the world, but you can help yourself as well.

“When the COVID-19 crisis finally subsides, we have a chance to create policies and civic structures that enable more giving in society. Some cities were already pioneering this idea before the pandemic and quarantine, and I hope we have the willingness and resolve to do so in a post-COVID-19 society as well.”

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