The magic of informal helping

Julia Nakamura, a graduate student at the University of British Columbia’s (UBC) health psychology program, is working to improve the health and well-being of a rapidly aging population, one step at a time.

Nakamura’s research is focused on how positive psychological factors (like purpose in life) and pro-social behaviors (volunteering, helping behaviors) might reduce the risk of age-related health conditions. Her work integrates methodologies from health psychology, epidemiology, biostatistics, gerontology (study of aging).

Benefits of prosociality

“I think that our aging population is a really important demographic shift to consider. In the next 20 years in Canada, the number of older adults over the age of 65 is expected to increase by 68 per cent,” says Nakamura. “While a lot of prior research has looked at risk factors for disease (depression, stress) in aging populations, our lab is really interested in the positive side of things, the positive psychological factors that can promote wellbeing (for example prosocial behaviors).”

Julia Nakamura says their lab is focused on the positive psychological factors that can promote wellbeing. | Photo courtesy of Julia Nakamura

Prosociality is defined as a constellation of voluntary acts that are motivated by concern for welfare or benefit of others. Nakamura explains that these behaviors can be formal, such as volunteering for an organization, or informal. Informal helping behaviors are not coordinated by an institution, for example babysitting, providing transportation or cooking meals.

“I’ve become very interested in informal helping behaviors for a couple of reasons,” shares Nakamura. “Firstly, it’s more accessible, not everyone from all socio-demographic backgrounds can contribute time to engage in formal volunteering, especially for older adults who might have physical health conditions or be in a wheelchair. Informal helping allows them to give back to society. Secondly, it appears to be twice as common as formal volunteering in Canada.”

Nakamura believes that current discussions of civic engagement might be too narrow, and are inadvertently excluding these very important informal contributions, while also devaluing those who are not contributing in more documented ways due to poor health, poverty or any other barriers. She hopes that the research can help in recognizing how these under-studied prosocial behaviors can improve health on the individual level (more positive health outcomes) as well as contribute to general societal well being.

What to expect in the upcoming lecture:

Nakamura’s upcoming talk will dive further into the outcomes of informal helping in a national sample of older adults in the U.S.

Using data from the health and retirement study, Nakamura’s team was able to examine 35 different health outcomes, including physical health factors (like mortality, stroke and cognitive impairment), health behaviors (like drinking, smoking and physical activity) as well as social outcomes (like purpose in life and loneliness).

“We found that people engaging in informal helping for 100 hours per year, which averages to about 2 hours per week, displayed some improved health outcomes as compared to people who didn’t engage in informal helping at all,” says Nakamura. “They had a 32 per cent decreased risk of mortality, 22 per cent reduced risk of strokes, and had frequent contact with children and friends.”

While this study is based in the U.S., Nakamura states that the team’s eventual goal is to answer these questions in a Canadian sample. She also shares that her team is hoping to study informal helping behaviors around the world in an upcoming research.

“My hope is to increase awareness about these behaviors and the health effects we might expect to see as a result,” concludes Nakamura.

Anyone interested in a deeper discussion can tune in to Nakamura’s lecture on Mar. 14: