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Can Volunteering Increase Happiness?

  • Zlatko Manovski
  • 2 April 2020
  • 5 minute read

 

I starred at the yoga teacher while he exaggerated a gaping yawn followed by a cheesy grin.

‘Now everyone else,’ he instructed.

The class obediently did as asked, each looking like those creepy wide mouthed clowns at those old amusement parks.

‘Feel that joy fill you up,’ he confidently announced.

‘Is this guy for real?’ I thought to myself. How’s this the magic remedy for happiness?

I didn’t find enlightenment that night. But it got me thinking…… 

 

So, what is it that makes us happy?

 

My mind drifted off, searching through the many happy moments in my life that might help me solve this puzzle. I noticed many of those memories were connected to my volunteering history.

I didn’t connect the dots that night but thought ‘no wonder’ as I recently read the 2019 World Happiness Report.

Of course, there’s no single aspect that’ll forever instil happiness. But, according to the report, volunteering is one of the top six predictors of life satisfaction around the world.

What is the World Happiness Report?

The World Happiness Report is an annual publication of the United Nations that ranks 156 countries by how happy their citizens perceive themselves to be.

The report is a collection of findings from many scientific studies. First published in 2012 by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network, it has fast become one of the most comprehensive and trusted reports on the planet.

The primary focus of the 2019 report was on happiness and the community. Happiness associated with volunteering was a focal point of the research.

 

Increasing happiness through volunteering

Volunteering is defined as helping another person with no expectation of monetary compensation and according to the report, helping others is associated with a wide range of emotional benefits for the giver. 

Research detailed in the report found that volunteering leads to greater life satisfaction, has a positive emotional effect and helps to reduce depression. 

The World Happiness Report detailed many research articles and scientific studies that are summarised below:

 

1. Studies detailing the link (correlation) between volunteering and happiness

37 studies with participants ranging from 15 to over 2,100, found that adult volunteers scored significantly higher on quality of life compared to non-volunteers.

 

2.  Long term studies (longitudinal)

17 studies found that over long periods, volunteering was linked to greater life satisfaction, greater quality of life and lower rates of depression.

 

3. Large scale survey

66,343 people participated in a large scale survey. Collectively, the data showed strong evidence between volunteering and the connection to well-being and happiness.

 

4. Cross-cultural studies

The Gallup World Poll collected data from over 130 countries and found that volunteering and happiness is also cross-cultural. The results pointed to the association between volunteering and well-being across diverse economic, political, and cultural settings. Most importantly these figures were gathered from both poor and wealthy countries.

 

5. Comparing health between volunteers and non-volunteers. 

The results suggested a robust link between volunteering and well-being that exists beyond demographics and social connectedness.

This is no surprise as volunteers typically participated in more social activities. Being involved in activities such as sports, cultural groups, or various clubs help keep them healthy, not only in body but in mind as well.

 

6. Studies on Prosocial spending (spending your own money to benefit others instead of spending on yourself)

Scientific research showed that charitable donations appear to activate reward centres within the human brain. The findings suggest that those who spent more money on others by providing gifts and donating to charity reported greater happiness.

 

That’s a ton of research……Still not convinced?

That’s ok, throwing yourself into a volunteering role can be daunting. So why not start with some small acts of kindness? 

Checkout this excerpt from the report below that connects kindness to happiness:

‘In addition to giving time and money, people can provide assistance in various other ways. For instance, holding the door open for a stranger, paying someone a compliment, caring for a sick relative, comforting a spouse, or returning a lost wallet are all small but meaningful forms of generous action.’

Consistent with the report, these acts of social support and kindness were reciprocated back to the helper. In other words, the person who offered a kind act felt they received the kindness back in some way. Although there was no scientific research to back these claims, researchers put it down to the persons positive outlook created by offering good deeds.

This section of the report brought a wide smile to my face as I read it.

‘Showing Kindness’ is our highest value at Bolsta Fundraising.

It lives on our Why We Exist page with our other values that we’re most proud of.

 

So, what can you do as a member in your organisation to help increase the good vibes in your volunteers?

Research has identified several key ingredients that are important for turning good deeds (volunteering) into good feelings.

Specifically, people are more likely to derive joy from helping others when:

  • Your volunteers feel free to choose whether or how to help
  • There is a connection to the people or cause they are helping
  • Recognise and  acknowledge how their volunteering efforts are making a difference

 

There you have it, the most recent data and research reflecting what is close to my heart. I very much hope some of this report can give you the confidence in trying something new.

You never know what delights await us. Or if all else fails, you can always try a big (cheesy grin) yawn.

I’d love to see your comments on how volunteering has helped increase your own happiness?

 

Reference: Helliwell, J., Layard, R., & Sachs, J. (2019). World Happiness Report 2019, New York: Sustainable Development Solutions Network.

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