Anyone with a passing familiarity with the Gospels or church teaching knows that helping one’s neighbor is good for the soul. Now there is growing evidence that acts of service can benefit physical health as well. In a study published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics, researchers found that Canadian 10th-grade students enrolled in a volunteer program lost weight and had lower levels of cholesterol compared with peers who did not participate. And in Social Science and Medicine (January 2016), Eric Kim and Sara Konrath report that among people over the age of 50, volunteering was associated with higher use of preventive measures (like flu shots and prostate exams) and 38 percent fewer nights in hospitals.
There is, however, a caveat: motivation matters. In an article in The Atlantic by James Hamblin (12/30/15) exploring the connection between volunteering and health outcomes, Mr. Kim explains, “Only the people who were doing it for more outward reasons—compassion for others—had reduced rates of mortality.” So spending a few nights at the soup kitchen this February just to keep one’s health resolutions for the new year on track might not have the desired effect.
Pope Francis has given Catholics ample inspiration to carry out the corporal works of mercy anyway. In his message for the World Day of Peace, the pope said that as a sign of the Jubilee Year of Mercy, we are “called to make specific and courageous gestures of concern for [our] most vulnerable members, such as prisoners, migrants, the unemployed and the infirm.” Such service is surely its own reward; a papal indulgence and healthy heart could be a welcome bonus.