IT DOESN'T TAKE a great leap of logic to conclude that helping others might make you feel good. If you're getting yourself out of the home to do volunteer work then you can't be too self-obsessed, and it's likely that after a couple of evenings at the soup kitchen you'll realise there are plenty of people in worse situations than yours. It's often been said that giving is good for the soul - even if it's just for the festive season - and all religions encourage philanthropy as a way of getting closer to the divine. What has received less attention is that volunteering can make you physically stronger and enhance life expectancy. Research in the US has even gone as far as to claim that volunteering is better for your health than quitting smoking. While such claims might be hard to prove, a five-year study by psychologists from the University of Michigan found that people who helped others significantly reduced their chances of dying during the research period. The study, published in the summer of last year, looked at the volunteering habits of more than 400 elderly couples. Many were helping with everyday tasks such as running errands or babysitting for family members. Those who didn't help were more than twice as likely to die during the study period as those who did. No similar studies have been carried out in Hong Kong, but Clare Chan, manager of Ho-Sum, an online charity that puts volunteers and charities in touch with each other, says that since Sars she's seen a rise in volunteers, suggesting that charities and individuals should benefit from the increased altruism. A doctor who has been practising in Central for 10 years says that someone with an improved sense of well-being and general happiness is better prepared to fight infection. 'We don't know for sure why,' she says. 'It's probably something to do with endorphins, which are basically the body's morphine that increases your feeling of well-being and has a knock-on effect on a lot of the body's systems.' Although she has advised some patients to volunteer, the doctor doesn't see it as a solution for everyone. 'Volunteering is very interesting,' she says. 'Some people thrive on it. Other people find it stressful and would benefit from something else like going on a long walk. For example, if they help in a shop an anxious person could find it very stressful just dealing with the other people that work there.' The documented rise in suicide rates suggests there are many in Hong Kong who are feeling emotionally drained. Last year, the World Health Organisation (WHO) placed Hong Kong in the unenviable position of having a 20 per cent higher rate of suicide than the global average. Frances Law Yik-wa, project director for the Centre for Suicide Research and Prevention at Hong Kong University, says that, although suicide rates are at a historical high, volunteer work offers a protective factor for people contemplating suicide. 'If you understand the reasons people want to kill themselves, you see that they have no hope for themselves - they don't feel useful or capable,' she says. 'If someone volunteers, they have energy, self-esteem and hope.' Law, who was director of charity group the Samaritans for six years, says that volunteering often helps people deal with their own stress. Although Samaritans come from all walks of life, many are from areas such as the disciplinary forces, teaching and medicine. 'All the people on the helpline would be volunteers,' she says. 'They would be listening to all these distressed calls. Many had busy jobs that meant they had to work overtime, but it didn't put them off because they wanted to serve. Many volunteers like the challenge that helps them balance their own lives.' Flora Chung, chief executive of the Agency for Volunteers (AVS) for the past 20 years, says she has seen countless examples of people whose health has improved once they took part in volunteer projects. Chung cites the case of a retired teacher who found his initial delight at being free of a heavy workload eventually gave way to stomach problems and depression. 'The stomach ache was terrible for him at the time, but he joined AVS helping at our referral service,' she says. 'He recovered from his sickness, but later he dropped the job and the stomach problems came back. Now, he comes to our centre two to three hours every day. He told us: 'I'll never leave AVS again'.'