Let's be real — this election season has been downright exhausting. From the sneering and sniffling to the email leaks and locker room talk, the drama surrounding this election has left millions of Americans fed up and wiped out. People have actually begun to feel so taxed that the American Psychological Association officially announced tips to help adults manage their election-related stress.
You might be considering sitting on the sidelines of life until November 8 has come and gone — and that's understandable. But throwing your hands up in despair might actually result in some missed opportunities for better health.
Although simply filling out your ballot in the voting booth might not immediately reduce blood glucose levels or change your dress size, performing civic duties — including voting, serving on juries, and doing volunteer work — has been shown to have a positive effect on people's physical and emotional wellbeing.
"Voting, volunteering at one of the campaign headquarters, or even making calls [for the election from your home] can be beneficial for your health — absolutely!" says Joe Taravella, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist who specializes in marital and family therapy at NYU Langone Medical Center's Rusk Rehabilitation in New York City. "Primarily because people feel they're a part of something that's larger than themselves. They really feel like they're making a difference. This provides a sense of purpose, which can be very rewarding."
There's research to back that up: In a January 2001 study, Harvard researchers found a correlation between high socioeconomic inequality — as measured by each state's voter turnout — and poor self-reported health. (Read: In the states where there was a bigger gap between the highly educated, wealthier people who were more likely to vote and the less educated, less wealthy who were less likely to vote, a greater number of people reported having poor health.)
And then there's a series of surveys conducted by psychology professors from Knox College in Galesberg, Illinois, which found that people who scored higher in political engagement had higher levels of happiness.
The bottom line is that everyone wants to be heard and healthy. "You're using your voice by getting out there to vote," Dr. Taravella says. "It's a great way to support something you believe in so that you feel you can be on the right side of history. It's a win-win."
Need more proof that voting is good for your body and mind? Here are five healthy reasons to embrace civic engagement:
1. Higher Quality of Life
According to a January 2005 study from the University of Minnesota, older adults who were civically engaged reported better mental health, physical health, and quality of life than their peers who weren't as involved.
The authors explained that civic engagement — which was defined as "actively participating in the life of their communities through voting, joining community groups, and volunteering" — provides more social networks, which in turn offers coping mechanisms for some of life's bigger challenges.
2. Lower Risk for Chronic Diseases
In 2014, investigators from the Rotman Research Institute at Baycrest Health Sciences in Toronto analyzed 73 studies conducted over 45 years, which focused on adults over the age of 50 who volunteered. Spending just two to three hours a week dedicated to a worthwhile cause was associated with fewer symptoms of depression, better overall health, fewer functional limitations, and even longer lifespan. In fact, researchers pointed out that people over the age of 50 who have chronic health conditions might benefit the most from volunteering, as the feeling of being appreciated also appears to enhance psychosocial wellbeing.
"Taken together, these results suggest that volunteering is associated with health improvements and increased physical activity — changes that one would expect to offer protection against a variety of health conditions," said lead author Dr. Nicole Anderson in a press release.
Taravella agrees, noting that the strengthened social ties that come with performing our civic duties (i.e. voting) have been linked to greater longevity. Score.
3. Improved Mental Health
In an August 2016 study, U.K. researchers polled more than 66,000 adults on their leisure activities, including formal volunteering, over the course of 17 years. They found that volunteers who were at least 40 years old tended to score the best when it came to emotional wellbeing, regardless of their marital status, education level, and social class.
"Let's say you're volunteering for one of the candidates of this campaign," Taravella says. "You're among your peers while working together towards a common goal. Interacting with others strengthens your social ties, which offers a lot of social and health benefits."
But if you're not out on the campaign trail, voting for your favorite candidate might still give your mental health a boost: A May 2014 study conducted by psychiatrists from Australia found that people with mental illnesses had better recovery rates if they were not denied their basic rights of citizenship, especially the right to vote. "Overall, it's about not feeling isolated," Taravella says.
4. More Confidence and Lower Risk of Problematic Behaviors, Especially in Young Adults
Civic participation can greatly benefit younger generations on many levels, according to a fall 2013 report from the Texas School Safety Center at Texas State University. After analyzing results from similar studies (for example, a December 2009 study that found young people's friendships and quality of life were shaped by — and tied to — community development), the Texas School Safety Center authors came to an important conclusion: Youth community engagement leads to better social and emotional development, effective problem-solving skills, a sense of belonging and purpose, and a reduced likelihood of using drugs and alcohol.
Taravella believes this is promising news: "We live in an age where we have helicopter parenting going on 24/7," he says. "It's just the nature of the times — whether it's the news or social media, there just seems to be a lot more going on and we tend to be more protective in overseeing our kids. So I think what getting involved teaches them is working through things, perseverance, and stamina — these are great life skills."
5. Lower Likelihood of Smoking
In a March 2016 study from the University of Colorado Cancer Center, researchers conducted a telephone survey of 11,626 people on smoking behaviors and frequency of voting. They found a startling correlation: Daily smokers were 60 percent less likely to vote than nonsmokers. Researchers speculated that smokers might view political institutions as oppressors or perhaps "the stigma associated with smoking may create social withdrawal or feelings of depression or fatalism among smokers, which could decrease voting."