Volunteering Aids Retirement Well-Being

May 13, 1998

ITHACA, N.Y. -- Volunteering boosts self-esteem and energy and gives Americans a sense of mastery over their lives, particularly in later midlife, says a new Cornell University study.

That may be why Americans in a smaller, preliminary Cornell study said they would like to spend as much time doing volunteer work as they now spend on leisure activities.

Yet most people, the new study finds, don't seek out community involvement. Of those who volunteer, 44 percent do so because someone asked them, says Phyllis Moen, the Ferris Family Professor in Life Course Studies in human development and sociology and the director of the Bronfenbrenner Life Course Center at Cornell.

Moen reported her findings to national volunteering experts at the "National Forum on Life Cycles and Volunteering: The Impact of Work, Family and Mid-Life Issues" April 30 at Cornell. The forum examined the latest research and trends in volunteerism and how life-course factors affect volunteering.

The benefits of volunteering affect not only those currently working as volunteers but also people who have ever volunteered, especially those in formal volunteering capacities, such as serving on boards of directors and working with service and religious groups, says Moen, who points out that a greater proportion of Americans volunteer regularly than do citizens of any other country.

"Community commitments, especially formal participation, help enhance our sense of identity, promote on-going networks of social relationships and foster expectations of what to do when we wake up in the morning, much like paid work," Moen told participants at the forum, sponsored by the College of Human Ecology. "Except volunteering has one huge advantage over paid work: You can quit if you don't like it," she said.

Moen pointed out that "we become what we do -- volunteering gives us a sense of ourselves as engaged in meaningful, productive activities that help change the world and a wider view of our possibilities, which benefit our psychological well-being."

She stressed that volunteering should become more of a public issue with institutional support and greater societal value and recognition, in the way paid work is now.

Specifically, she found: Moen is the director of the Cornell Retirement and Well-Being Study of a random sample of 762 men and women, between ages 50 and 72, that examines the retirement transition. It is being conducted with Vivian Fields, a researcher in the Department of Human Development, and it is funded as part of the Cornell Applied Gerontology Research Institute by the National Institute on Aging.

Moen also draws on in-depth interview data from workers in upstate New York as part of the Cornell Family and Careers Institute, a Sloan Center on Working Families that addresses the challenges and strategies of working families, such as their decisions, stresses, beliefs and expectations and their coping strategies for parenting, child care and financial decisions. Her findings emerge from both projects.

Cornell University

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