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