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Volunteering and Human Flourishing

How volunteering affects health and well-being.

In his now-classic book, Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam observed that healthy communities are marked by a high degree of “social trust,” a general sense that their members are not simply pursuing their own narrow good, but are willing to look out for one another as well. In such societies, neighbors rake one another’s leaves and strangers watch over one another’s laptops in coffee shops. Putnam also noted that people in communities with strong social trust tend to volunteer their time at relatively high rates, both directly benefiting those they serve, and also indirectly encouraging such generosity in others.

Volunteering and other expressions of social trust clearly promote the common good, in the sense of “the sum of those conditions of social life which allow social groups and their individual members relatively thorough and ready access to their own fulfillment” (Paul VI, Gaudium et Spes §26). Volunteering benefits the community being served, and also can help bring about social trust, which of course, in turn, can benefit the volunteers themselves.

However, it also turns out that volunteering benefits the volunteers in yet further ways than one might expect. In this month’s issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, several of us at the Human Flourishing Program at Harvard have published a thorough empirical investigation of this question, exploring the role of volunteering in the subsequent health and well-being of adult volunteers. The results are striking.

Our Study and What We Found

Joel Muniz/Unsplash
Source: Joel Muniz/Unsplash

In our research, we used data on about 13,000 older adults in the Health and Retirement Study, with 8 years of data on each participant. We examined, for example, how volunteering in 2010 was related to subsequent health and well-being in 2014, controlling for those same health and well-being outcomes in 2006, along with a vast range of social, demographic, and behavioral characteristics.

During the study period, participants who volunteered at least two hours per week (compared with not at all) subsequently had higher levels of happiness, optimism, and purpose in life, and more contact with friends; they also had lower levels of depressive symptoms, hopelessness, and loneliness, fewer perceived physical discomforts and disabilities, and more physical activity. They were also notably less likely to die in the four years of follow-up — about 40% less so! This final result is, in fact, similar to, and helps to yet further confirm, an earlier meta-analysis (combining results over many studies) of the potential effects of volunteering on mortality.

This is not to say that there was evidence for effects on all outcomes examined. There was no evidence, for instance, that volunteering prevents hypertension or lung disease, and little evidence that it increases life satisfaction. However, as described above, there was evidence for an effect on many of the outcomes we looked at.

Is It Causal?

One might, however, wonder whether the associations are simply because those who are healthier are more able to volunteer. As with all of our empirical effect assessment research, we did a number of things to help address this possibility of “reverse causation” and to try to distinguish between association and causation. (Feel free to skip this section if you are uninterested in the methodological details!)

First, volunteering was measured four years prior to the health and well-being outcomes that we evaluated. This rigorous longitudinal design helps establish the temporal ordering of the relationships, and in this way is superior to most prior studies on this topic, which often use cross-sectional data (where everything is measured at the same time).

Second, we also controlled for the participants’ prior levels of health and psychological well-being, to try to rule out that it was just positive health or psychological states that were leading to greater volunteering. Third, we additionally controlled for numerous other social, demographic, and behavioral characteristics at the beginning of the study to try to rule out that these might explain the relationship. Fourth, we controlled for even earlier prior levels of volunteering, so that associations would effectively reflect changes in volunteering practices. Finally, for each outcome examined, we reported an E-value measure, that assesses how robust or sensitive results are to potential unmeasured variables, and thereby helps evaluate the evidence for causality.

All of these things help establish that the associations do, at least partially, reflect causal effects, and for some of the outcomes, such as mortality risk and increasing contact with friends, the results seemed particularly robust. Although it is difficult to definitively establish causality with this sort of observational data, one can provide evidence; and here the evidence for the effects of volunteering on some of the health and well-being outcomes is quite strong.

Questions of Character

Of course, most people typically do not volunteer simply to improve their own health and well-being. Rather, they hope to make some small contribution to the lives of others, to the community — to the common good. It might thus seem somewhat surprising then that there appear to be effects on one’s own health and well-being also. How are we to understand this?

While this extends beyond the data we have, one possibility is that volunteering itself — the long-term sustained attempt to systematically help others and help one’s community — may in turn help shape one’s character and one’s orientation towards the good. This itself may go on to contribute to a number of health and well-being outcomes. In fact, in a future research post, we will discuss some current ongoing research on how certain aspects of character (such as our item in our flourishing index measure on “I always act to promote good in all circumstances, even in difficult and challenging situations”) are strongly associated with numerous health and well-being outcomes over time.

Another possibility for the effects of volunteering on well-being is that volunteering often involves sustained engagement with a community both of volunteers and of those served, and may thereby provide opportunities to build strong loving relationships. Love is not just seeking to do good to others; it is also seeking to come to know them and to be with them. By creating sustained communities, volunteering might thus also provide opportunities for the formation of good and loving relationships.

Regardless of what the explanations might be, the evidence for important effects of volunteering seems sufficiently strong that, a few years ago, Dr. Stephen Post published an article recommending a “prescription” of volunteering for two hours a week. He acknowledges that for some already deeply engaged in “helping professions” in their life and work, this may not be necessary. And there is, of course, also the danger of volunteering simply for the sake of one’s own benefit, and not for that of the other, or volunteering for the purposes of “resume-padding.” We do not at present really know to what extent such self-centered forms of volunteering contribute to one’s well-being, or whether even they might go some way in positively shaping one’s character. However, for many, engaging in volunteering can be a powerful way to contribute to the good of others, to the community, to the common good, and to the good of the person volunteering as well.

Volunteering Amidst COVID-19

There are of course challenges as to what can be done, and the extent of volunteering possible, within the context of the present COVID-19 pandemic. A few months ago, however, The Washington Post published a piece with several helpful suggestions, titled, “How you can help during the coronavirus outbreak: Several nonprofit organizations could use your time and money to make sure vulnerable populations are cared for during the pandemic.” There are also a number of volunteer search engines that match the interests of potential volunteers with opportunities in the local area. One engine, for example, uses zip codes; another connects potential volunteers with relevant international non-governmental organizations based on interests. The effects on communities and society can be profound. A report from the Bank of England (see esp. Figures 9 and 10) suggested that the economic value of volunteering in the UK alone may exceed 40 or 50 billion pounds.

Some corporations are also beginning to recognize the value that volunteering can provide to their communities and employees. One of the Human Flourishing Program’s donors in fact offers paid time off to his company’s employees, allowing them to serve in activities of their choosing. Others could do likewise. Society as a whole, and each of us individually, will more fully thrive if we are continually seeking the good of others. Volunteering is one such way to contribute to the common good.

The Human Flourishing Program at Harvard’s Institute for Quantitative Social Science aims to study and promote human flourishing, and to develop systematic approaches to the synthesis of knowledge across disciplines. You can sign up here for a monthly research e-mail from the Human Flourishing Program.

References

Kim, E.S., Whillans, A.V., Lee, M.T., Chen, Y. and VanderWeele, T.J. (2020). Volunteering and subsequent health and well-being in older adults: an outcome-wide longitudinal approach. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 59:176-186.

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