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Why It Feels So Good to Do Good

New research shows how being a good giver can fulfill your basic needs.

Key points

  • Many people who are motivated by rewards at work such as salary, privileges, and status still volunteer their time for free.
  • One study of volunteers shows how giving taps into a person's autonomous, intrinsic motivation, which leads to greater fulfillment.
  • Some volunteer activities that are worthwhile can still be unpleasant or taxing. Often these aspects can be negotiated or managed.

You may consider yourself a very busy person, and given the many competing demands on people’s schedules, you’re probably right. Yet, how often do you carve time out of that schedule to give your energy to a cause you believe in? And when you do, why does that make you feel so rewarded for your efforts?

Perhaps you don’t even really think all that much about what you do and why you do it. Your local public school needs someone to help out with distributing food and prizes at their annual holiday fair. By offering your time, you know that you’re going to have to be creative in rearranging things at home. But you can’t “just say no.” Something you can’t put into words leads you to put your name on the list of volunteers.

Volunteering is an inherent part of life in a community, and many organizations simply couldn’t run without their volunteers. If it’s true that people are motivated by rewards at work such as salary, privileges, and status, why does anyone sacrifice previous time when no such rewards are on the horizon?

Why Volunteering Can Promote Well-Being

According to the University of Verona’s Anna Maria Menengini and the University of Padua’s Daiana Colledani (2022), it’s the boost to well-being that can provide the explanation of why so many people go to such lengths to chip in their time to a worthwhile cause. However, research is lacking on exactly how time spent helping others can provide such positive “intangible assets and well-being (WB)” (p. 2).

Theoretically, the type of WB that volunteering should promote is called “eudaimonic,” a term derived from Greek that refers to inner feelings of fulfillment and “realization of one’s true nature.” Hedonistic WB, by contrast, refers to immediate feelings of pleasure and happiness, which themselves are seen as an end in and of themselves.

Looking at WB from this dichotomy, you can start to see why volunteerism might have such deep and rewarding benefits. It’s possible you can derive immediate hedonic happiness from the donation of your time, especially if you enjoy the company of the people who join you in your efforts. However, what will keep you going over the long haul, especially when you have to make personal sacrifices, would be eudaimonic WB, or the belief that what you’re doing has some value that goes beyond your own sense of fun.

Think now about stories you’ve heard on the news or seen on your social media feed that highlight the good works of a volunteer. A 9-year-old child starts a food drive, a veteran’s service organization leader organizes a marathon, or a truck driver collects and distributes toys to children whose homes were destroyed in a hurricane. Although the focus of news stories, these individuals didn’t set out to gain fame when they got involved in their cause. Instead, you can tell just from seeing their stories play out that a much deeper sense of meaning guided them through their efforts.

Digging Deeper Into the Motivation of Volunteers

The Italian researchers, in moving beyond what might anecdotally make sense, proposed that the true driving force for volunteerism lies in understanding a specific form of motivation. Using the well-established model of self-determination theory (SDT), Menenghini and Colledani note that volunteering could be thought of as the ultimate form of intrinsic motivation, or the desire to fulfill your inner interests and passions. SDT regards intrinsic motivation, furthermore, as an “autonomous” motivation not controlled by any outside forces such as receiving fame, money, or attention for your efforts.

Within SDT, volunteering should theoretically not only have a strong autonomously controlled component, but it is also the type of behavior that could bolster your feelings of competence. You might enjoy participating in that school fair because you have a knack for engaging with people as you hand out the food and prizes. Or, you might have been one of the contributors of handmade crafts or home-baked cookies. However, what if the organizer of the affair started to dictate exactly what you should contribute or what you should do and say when you’re there (beyond setting reasonable expectations)? You planned to help, not to report to a supervisor. Limitations on your sense of autonomy could definitely detract from the potential to contribute to your eudaimonic WB.

To test the role of SDT’s predictions in understanding the WB-volunteering relationship, the Italian researchers administered questionnaires to 175 adults (ages 18 to 80; 41 percent men) serving as volunteers to a variety of non-profit organizations. In addition to assessing motivation, WB, and life satisfaction, participants received direct questions assessing the effect the experience of being a volunteer had on them. These questions were: “Compared to before you volunteered, how do you feel today?” and “Think about the extent to which volunteering contributes to your satisfaction with your life” (answered by indicating a point on a scale).

Try thinking about these questions yourself with respect to any recent activity for which you volunteered. Where did you come out on these scales? Then, thinking about why you volunteered, see if you can identify your primary motivations and the extent to which you felt that the activity fulfilled your own inner needs.

Turning to the results, as the authors predicted, volunteers high in autonomous, intrinsic motivation felt that they were more engaged in the volunteer activities themselves. In turn, these factors predicted higher levels of volunteer satisfaction and overall life satisfaction. However, a separate pathway led from motivation through engagement and ultimately to eudaimonic well-being.

It appears, then, that volunteerism taps into a type of motivation that leads people to want to express their true selves which, in turn, allows them to feel a deeper sense of fulfillment. Yet, as the authors note, volunteerism doesn’t necessarily feel all that good all the time. Some volunteer activities can be unpleasant or taxing such as spending hours the night before getting everything ready for the big event. From the organizer’s standpoint, the findings also suggest that it’s important to boost the volunteer’s sense of “community self-efficacy,” or perception of contributing something of value to a worthwhile cause.

Getting the Most Out of Your Own Volunteering

Now that you understand the deep drivers of volunteer motivation, it can provide you with perspective on the ways that your own helping behavior has helped you. However, if you’ve given up time and time again in frustration after some bad volunteer experiences, the Italian research also suggests how you might remedy the situation. Is the volunteer supervisor someone who makes you feel unimportant? Do they create a toxic volunteer environment? Have they let their little bit of power get to their head?

If so, you may consider re-engaging with the organization under some new terms of negotiation. Learn to ask for the activities in which your talents can thrive (while still being of use overall). Consider requesting a new assignment in which you don’t have to deal with this person. Or if the entire operation seems mismanaged and your efforts appear futile, find another cause that’s just as worthwhile but doesn’t come with all the attendant misery.

To sum up, it’s very useful to know that there is a route to fulfillment in a domain outside of your ordinary daily pursuits. Finding that niche in which you can both contribute and excel can be what sustains your fundamental sense of your own identity while at the same time serving to fulfill the needs of those you help.

References

Meneghini, A. M., & Colledani, D. (2022). “Doing well by doing good”: When and how volunteering fosters hedonic and eudaimonic well-being. The Humanistic Psychologist. doi: 10.1037/hum0000303

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