Character  &  Context

The Science of Who We Are and How We Relate
Editors: Mark Leary, Shira Gabriel, Brett Pelham
May 08, 2019

Some Experts Claim that Volunteering is Good for People’s Psychological Well-Being. Is it?

by Ann-Marie Creaven
Happy volunteers are posing and smiling during their volunteer work in a warehouse

Imagine if there was something simple you could tell people to do that would broaden their social circle, increase their sense of purpose in life, improve their mental and physical health, and benefit their wider communities at the same time. Wouldn’t you like to know what that could be?

According to many researchers, volunteering is one thing we should do to achieve these goals, whether volunteering in schools or with youth groups, for environmental projects, or with older adults.  For this reason, volunteering is sometimes prescribed as an intervention to improve people’s mental and physical health.

However, volunteering may not be an antidote for everyone. Research indicates, for example, that volunteering might benefit only a specific group of people – those with positive views of other people. And, of course, keeping up with the demands of high levels of volunteering can be stressful in itself.

Besides this, much of the research linking volunteering to health has neglected a very well-known fact in psychology: being socially connected -- having friends we can turn to and feeling part of a community -- is beneficial for health. So, if we already have good friends and relationships, and regularly spend time with people who are important in our lives, will adding volunteering to our social calendar have any additional benefits?

We tested this idea using data from 15 countries that participated in the 2012 European Social Survey, which measures attitudes, beliefs, and behaviours, including volunteering, social connectedness, and depression.

As we expected, people who volunteered frequently had lower depression symptoms than people who never volunteered, which fits with many other studies.  Volunteers were also more socially connected than non-volunteers. They were more likely to be married, have close friendships, engage in social activities, and report high levels of support from their social networks. Importantly, when we considered how socially connected the volunteers were, there were no differences in depression between volunteers and non-volunteers. In other words, the effects of volunteering on people’s well-being seemed to be due to the fact that volunteering increases people’s social connections.  

So, what’s the take-home message from this study? For people who are socially connected anyway, there was no psychological advantage of volunteering in terms of depression. This suggests that the studies that reported lower depression among volunteers might really be pointing at an association between social connectedness and depression rather than showing any special benefit of volunteering itself. It also suggests that prescribing volunteering to people who already have strong social connections might not be very effective in enhancing their mental health. 

Of course, this does not mean that volunteering is unimportant, not least because volunteering can have widespread benefits for the community. It can also be wise to maintain membership in multiple social groups, including volunteer groups.  Social psychological research suggests that having connections to many social groups is good for our mental health because it can offset the impact of losing groups or roles over time. For example, volunteering following retirement might be an excellent replacement for the loss of socialising through work.  However, to help people get the most value from volunteering, we need additional research to identify the kinds of people for which it is most beneficial.

For Further Reading:
Creaven, A-M., Healy, A.E., Howard, S. 2018. Social connectedness and depression: Is there added value in volunteering? Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 35(10), 1400-1417.

Ann-Marie Creaven is an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Limerick, Ireland. Her research examines the ways in which our social relationships can be good (and not so good) for our health and well-being. 

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Why is this blog called Character & Context?

Everything that people think, feel, and do is affected by some combination of their personal characteristics and features of the social context they are in at the time. Character & Context explores the latest insights about human behavior from research in personality and social psychology, the scientific field that studies the causes of everyday behaviors.  

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