Volunteering and happiness

One of my all-time favourite statistics comes from a small survey carried out more than a decade ago. It found that volunteering was the second greatest source of joy, second only to, wait for it – Scottish country dancing. I have used this stat in numerous speeches over the years (apologies to all of you who have heard it before), but it is a lovely short-hand way of emphasising the value of volunteering which goes way beyond the obvious.

We can measure volunteering in economic terms and in the value to the local community, and, as I wrote a few weeks ago, new evidence is emerging about the contribution volunteering plays in enhancing employability and in helping people into work. But what this stat demonstrates so neatly I think is the value volunteering has on the less concrete aspects of human existence such as happiness and well-being.

I thought of this stat again this week with the publication of the latest Ipsos MORI poll which has found that we Brits are about middling in terms of international happiness – joint eleventh with France in a poll of 24 countries – but, perhaps not surprisingly given the recession, less ‘very happy’ than we were six years ago. Incidentally, if you are interested, the happiest people were found in Indonesia, followed by Canada, Sweden and Australia – the latter I can well believe after the recent Ashes series.

Now it would be nonsense to suggest that volunteering can solve all the ills of the mind and body, just as it would be bizarre to claim that volunteering alone is the answer to long-term unemployment, but there is a growing body of research from around the globe which indicates that volunteering does have a feel-good effect, helping to combat stress and depression and contributing to feelings of greater life satisfaction.

I’m not sure if we know exactly why volunteering works in this way – whether it is to do with the ‘warm glow’ of doing something useful, or the collegiate nature of much volunteering, and the satisfaction that comes from working together with friends and colleagues to make a difference.

But whatever, it seems to work. And interestingly longitudinal surveys which have measured these things over time, have found that the more volunteering you do and the more groups you are involved with, the higher your level of general well-being. We shouldn’t be surprised. The negative impact on health of loneliness and isolation is well documented – one study found it to be as harmful as smoking – and perhaps in volunteering we are seeing the reverse, positive effects at work.

Governments and policy makers are beginning to take an interest in this phenomenon. The Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan was the first nation in the world to develop a happiness index as an alternative to gross domestic product. Others have followed suit, and in Canada an index of wellbeing has been developed which identifies ‘community vitality’ (of which volunteering is a key component) as an important indicator. In 2010 David Cameron launched a national wellbeing programme to measure quality of life and the ONS has developed a framework for measurement which includes aspects of social action.

So what does this all mean? What are the policy implications? Given that volunteering can contribute so much to national wellbeing, we should consider how to maximise the health benefits that volunteering can bring. We need more projects like the one in Durham where the local Volunteer Centre 2D is working with six GP practices to foster the development of a ‘social prescribing’ model to health care, encouraging patients, where appropriate, to take up volunteering as complementary to long-term medical treatment. As a recent report from the Cabinet Office and DWP put the financial equivalent of the wellbeing benefit derived from volunteering at over £13,000 per person, it would be no surprise if the health outcomes alone made this a worthwhile investment and saved money for the public purse. It would be great to see more healthcare professionals and institutions considering engaging with volunteering programmes to make this a reality, with the appropriate funding to match. A good start would be with the government’s new Mental Health strategy launched this week.

Finally, we are always on the lookout for new slogans to demonstrate the worth of volunteering. How about this: ‘Volunteering is good for you – literally’.

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Justin was executive director of volunteering and development at NCVO and chief executive of Volunteering England. He is now a senior research fellow at City University Cass Business School’s Centre for Charity Effectiveness.

10 Responses to Volunteering and happiness

  1. Great blog – have sent the first paragraph to our fire service volunteers and tweeted the link. Presumably a volunteer who teaches Scottish dancing is the happiest person around…..

  2. Amy Rugg says:

    I can definitely agree with this. Volunteering, that is, not Scottish country dancing (only because I haven’t tried it).

  3. Nicola Shaw says:

    Great blog! Does anyone have any stats on how happy volunteers at Scottish country dancing groups are? JUST IMAGINE!!!

  4. Wendy Breakwell says:

    Great blog. Who would have thought it – Scottish dancing! Can’t knock it though because I haven’t tried it. However being a volunteer I can certainly agree that it brings joy and fulfilment. As a volunteer coordinator, I can see that in my volunteers too.

  5. Amy Drysdale says:

    As a volunteer coordinator, I can confirm that our volunteers who are also Scottish country dancers are very happy indeed! 🙂 (and yes – I’m also a Scottish country dancer!)

  6. Ilir says:

    Yes, i agree! Volunteering does bring happiness, partly because is an activity that you only take part if you’re enjoy it. Well-being and social isolation are two big challenges that this country faces in the coming years and volunteering can defiantly help!

    First i hear of Scottish country dancing..bring on Google and YouTube! I’m sure that I’ll see many happy faces.

  7. Jo says:

    What a perfect intro to my blurb at our AGM. Consider yourself quoted! Thank you

  8. Jane Smith says:

    I totally disagree. Volunteering caused me to have a mental breakdown. I have volunteered for a few places and expereince the same. Mainly greedy organsiations who exploit volunteers for free labour. They impose hours of work, times etc and if you cannot keep up they get rid of you without warning. No training, no expenses. No giving you a reference. They don’t even notice you and if you leave you don’t even get a goodbye never mind a thank you. So called ‘caring’ professions are worse especially mental health ones. The only ones benefiting are organsations themselves, form your free labour and grants they can get from having service users involved. By volunteering you are often doing someone out of a paid job. Also only rich can afford to do it. If you are unemployed it becomes part of workfare and compulsory so not volunteering. If you are sick you can have your benfits stopped or your eligibility questioned even if you were trying to see if you could manage going out of house. As for stopping isolation and combatting loneliness forget it. Most volunteer organsations don’t even know who you are and you are therebjust to save them money. Nothing is invested in you as a person and you feel devalued which leads to further loss of self worth if you were feeling low to start with. There is no shortage of people queuing up to work for free so they can pick and choose and get rid of people as the mood takes them thus further devaluing the time you give and leaving you feeling used rather than with a sense of increased wellbeing

    • Justin Davis Smith says:

      I was really sorry to hear of your bad experience of volunteering. Of course not all experiences are positive and yours sounds like a particularly awful one. What you describe sounds like classic bad practice and almost like a ‘how not-to’ guide to involving volunteers: take them for granted, don’t provide any support, don’t pay expenses, treat them as cheap labour. Thankfully in our experience such bad practice is rare, but even one example is one too many.

      A lot of the work we do at NCVO is about working with organisations to help them involve volunteers in more meaningful, supportive, and respectful ways. However, we acknowledge that sometimes things do go wrong and that for the individual on the wrong end of a bad experience the impact can be devastating. In 2009 Volunteering England (as was) set up the Volunteer Rights Inquiry to investigate the extent of bad practice and to think of what more could be done to support volunteers when things turn sour. It reported in 2010 and one outcome was the establishment of the 3R Promise, where we asked organisations to sign up to a ‘charter’ on good practice. The 3 R’s referred to the importance of getting it right from the beginning; offering a means to achieve reconciliation if things go wrong; and to accept responsibility for ensuring a good volunteering experience.

      We have been talking with volunteers who themselves have had a bad experience and are thinking about how best to embed this work into our on-going advice and support. None of this unfortunately will help you, but hopefully it will lessen the chance of it happening to someone else in the future.

  9. Pingback: Volunteering and happiness (supporting Mental Health Awareness Week 2014) | Community Action Suffolk