by Justin Standfield
Volunteers Week takes place 1-7 June every year in the UK. It’s a chance to recognise the fantastic contribution volunteers make to our communities and say thank you. Volunteers Week is supported by small grassroots organisations as well as larger, household-name charities, who together run hundreds of activities across the country.
There are so many opportunities out there to become a volunteer and they’re quite varied (it isn’t all jumble sales in church halls or dragging shopping trolleys out of inner city canals, as I once thought it was!). For example, I’m a governor at a primary school and I offer free mindfulness meditation sessions to a range of community groups in Hampshire. If you think you’d like to get involved in some sort of voluntary work, yet you’re not sure where to start, take a look at the Volunteers Week website.
A study published by the Journal of Happiness Studies in 2020, suggested that volunteers aren’t just providing practical assistance to the communities they serve. People who volunteer experience a boost in their mental health and subjective wellbeing.
Within this study, the researchers looked at data from nearly 70,000 people in the UK who completed questionnaires about their volunteering habits and their mental health, including their levels of distress and functioning in everyday life. These research participants received the survey every two years between 1996 and 2014. The findings indicate that there are happiness benefits for people who volunteer, as well as other positive psychological changes.
That said, the research also examined the issue of reverse causality by attempting to answer the question: “Does volunteering make people happy or are happy people simply more likely to volunteer?”. The study concluded that the same happiness results appeared even when they accounted for the research participants’ initial levels of wellbeing before they started volunteering. In other words, this study found that people who started to volunteer became happier over time.
What is it about volunteering that can boost our wellbeing and happiness levels? Many people I know that are volunteers are drawn to specific voluntary work because it enables them to engage with a cause that’s close to their heart and provides much-needed support, expertise or fundraising capability (for example, a health condition that affects them or a loved one).
Several studies into human motivation and happiness have highlighted the importance of intrinsic reward, as opposed to external recognition. The act of volunteering is intrinsically rewarding, which must be part of the explanation as to why people give up some of their free time for seemingly nothing in return (at least, in a material sense). Researchers have referred to this as the “warm glow” effect.
On a more practical level, volunteering can be a fantastic way to develop professional skills such as networking, group facilitation, planning and organising, budgeting and even trying out leadership techniques. Because of this, volunteering can be particularly beneficial to people looking to gain skills for their career development – typically, this will include young people in the early stages of their working life.
In addition, many people who volunteer experience a stronger sense of social support and connection to others when they volunteer, especially if the activity is undertaken in groups. This is an important aspect of wellbeing and resilience. We know that you need to have spare time in order to volunteer, so if we imagine that a large proportion of people doing voluntary work are likely to be retired, this can also offer retired people an opportunity to combat loneliness or reduced social contact.
In the study mentioned above, the researchers found that participants ages 16-24 and 55-74 were especially likely to benefit from volunteering, perhaps because of the opportunities to build social connections and develop new skills.
To find out more about opportunities to get involved in volunteering, take a look at the Volunteers Week website.