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July 11, 2007
Column #1,350
Advance for July 14, 2007
"Why Good Things Happen to Good People"
by Mike McManus

In recent months, atheists have published books ridiculing people of faith.  Perhaps they should look at the mounting scientific evidence on the value of selflessness, inspired by faith.

Last week the Corporation for National & Community Service released a report, "Volunteering in America," with the encouraging finding that people who serve others "appear to live longer and have greater functional ability and lower rates of depression later in life than those who do not volunteer."

Jesus put it simply, "Give, and you shall receive."

This is a timeless truth. A thousand years earlier, Solomon wrote in Proverbs 11:25, "those who refresh others will be refreshed."

Americans have known this wisdom from the outset.  The United States has long been known as a nation of volunteers. Emerson wrote, "It is one of the most beautiful compensations of this life that no man can sincerely try to help another without helping himself."

What's important about the new study is its scientific evidence that communities of people with particularly high percentages of volunteers live years longer.  For example, in Minneapolis-St. Paul, more than 40 percent of the population volunteer to serve others - substantially above the U.S. average of 28 percent. In the year 2000, a Minnesota new-born baby could expect to live 79.1 years according to the National Center for Health Statistics.

By contrast, Mississippi's volunteer rate was only 24 percent.  And its life expectancy was only 73.7 years.  That's evidence a state's people who give more, live five years longer.

Nor does the amount of time given have to be very much.  In the Twin Cities, the average volunteer is donating only 44 hours per year, less than an hour a week.

That figure varies widely across the nation.  Over the years 2004-2006, people in Las Vegas gave only 20 hours per volunteer, the least of 50 major metropolitan areas.  By contrast, Tulsa's volunteers donated 60 hours, or three times more per capita.  Other generous cities were Charlotte, Salt Lake, Seattle and Portland with more than 50 hours. 

Another measure of generosity is the percentage of the population who were volunteering. Next to the Twin Cities were Salt Lake, Austin, Omaha, Seattle, Portland, OR and Kansas City, where 35 percent or more of the population were givers. 

The stingiest? Las Vegas at only 14 percent of the population and Miami plus New York City.

What kind of work were the volunteers doing?

Nationally, 29 percent donated time to raise money perhaps for a church or PTA.  Another quarter of volunteers helped feed the needy. A fifth gave general labor, such as mowing an elderly neighbor's lawn. Another fifth of volunteers are tutors, perhaps of disadvantaged children or are teachers, as in a Sunday school class.

Where do volunteers serve? More than a third do so in churches and a quarter, in schools. The rest are scattered in such fields as social or community service, hospitals, sports and civic, political or professional fields.

American volunteers do huge amounts of work for others. In 2006, 61 million Americans dedicated 8 billion hours for others.

No one has done more research on the benefits of giving than Dr. Stephen Post, a professor of bioethics at Case Western Reserve University's School of Medicine and as founder of the Institute of Unlimited Love, that has commissioned scores of studies.  In a new book, "Why Good Things Happen to Good People," written with Jill Neimark, he writes:

"Giving is the most potent force on the planet....It's always within your power to give. Giving will protect you your whole life long."

For example, those who volunteer for two or more organizations have 44 percent lower likelihood of dying in a given year. That reduction in mortality is bigger than the 30 percent drop of those who exercise four times a week. 

How about those who give no significant support to others? They are twice as apt to die over five years.

Those who give two hours a week are the happiest and healthiest people. However, those who give three hours weekly are no better off.  Indeed, a wife whose husband has Alzheimer's feels like she's working a 36 hour day.

How giving a person are you?  Post has created a "Love and Longevity Scale" in the book which will gives a way to measure how loving you are compared to others.  The good news is you can decide to be more generous.

Loving is offered for selfless reasons. Yet even those who decide to do so late in life, can transform their last years into happier and healthier ones. 

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