Steven Pirutinsky, Touro College – Benefits of Volunteering for Older Adults

Is volunteering beneficial for everyone?

Steven Pirutinsky, assistant professor in the graduate school of social work at Touro College, examines how some, but not all, older adults benefit from helping others.

Steven Tzvi Pirutinsky has a B.T.S. from Beth Medrash Govoha, an M.S. in Clinical Psychology from Teachers College – Columbia University, and a Ph.D. Columbia University. He joined Touro Graduate School of Social Work in 2016.

Dr. Pirutinsky is a licensed clinical psychologist whose practice has included a variety of different services such as individual and group psychotherapy for adults and children, psychological and educational testing, risk assessments, family and couple’s therapy, foster care services, treatment of youth with sexual behavior problems, and career counseling and assessment. Before joining the Touro faculty full time, Dr. Pirutinsky taught at Columbia University, Georgian Court University, and Ocean County College. His research focuses on the intersections between spirituality, religion, culture, mental health, and well-being particularly within the Orthodox Jewish community. He frequently publishes peer-reviewed research in journals such as Criminal Justice and Behavior, the Journal of Affective Disorders, Health Psychology, the Journal of Family Psychology, and the Journal of Positive Psychology. He is also interested in cutting-edge research methods and statistical analyses as well as experimental methods, and serves as a statistical consultant for a number of large ongoing research projects.

Benefits of Volunteering for Older Adults

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Many studies have associated volunteering with improved mood, leading some to recommend volunteering to older adults who might be otherwise isolated. But the research has a few problems. It’s hard to determine whether the mood boost comes from the prosocial aspect of volunteering—from helping others—or from the social contact that these activities typically provide.  Secondly, we don’t know whether people who are generally happier tend to volunteer or whether volunteering contributes to being happier. The research has shown correlation, not causation.  Third, we hypothesized that volunteering helps some people but not others, based on individual characteristics.

In our study, we split older adults into three groups. One group imagined a prosocial activity, one group imagined a purely social activity, and the control group imagined a neutral activity.  We found that only those who scored high on social responsibility, a measure of how much they valued responsibility towards others, experienced more positive effect in the prosocial condition compared to the social or neutral conditions. In fact, those who scored low on altruistic orientation, a measure of how connected you feel towards others, reported greater negative emotion when imagining a prosocial behavior compared to those who scored high on altruistic orientation.

This study provides evidence that the benefits of volunteering is not just from being around others, but the act of helping may that enhance mood.

The other takeaway is that the benefit of prosocial behavior is connected to your value system and personality. If you don’t value helping others or feel particularly connected to them, volunteering is not going to make you happier and it may make you feel worse.  People need to discover their own values and personality in order to choose activities that reflect these things to improve mood.

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