By Alex Fradera
Volunteer! Universities, community groups and even the NHS recommend it, citing benefits for society and also yourself. The claimed personal outcomes include boosting your health and subjective wellbeing, but while the former is slowly gathering experimental backing, the wellbeing research is overwhelmingly correlational, making it hard to prove that volunteering is causing the gains (it’s certainly plausible, for instance, that happier people are simply more inclined to give up their time for free). Now the journal Comprehensive Results in Social Psychology has published a more robust test: a randomised study. The researchers looked for evidence to support the mental wellbeing benefits from volunteering … but they looked in vain.
Ashley Whillans of the University of British Columbia led the study which investigated the impact of a popular American volunteering programme called Community Service Learning (CSL), in which university students earn study credits by volunteering for ten to twelve hours per week – for example, running a food bank, or mentoring younger students. The university participating in this study was frequently oversubscribed for its CSL programme and used a lottery to place students into the programme or onto a wait list, naturally creating experimental and control groups similar in background and motivation.
All participants reported their mental wellbeing before and after the two-semester long programme ran, using a measure covering life satisfaction, personal meaning, experienced emotions and depressive symptoms, as well as feelings of loneliness and social connectedness. Volunteers have tended to show high scores on all of these measures in past research, so Whillans’ team predicted they would find a moderate increase in these outcomes among the volunteers in their study. But comparing the 232 volunteers to the 56 wait list students, no such effect was found. There wasn’t even any evidence that volunteering might be having a beneficial effect on a specific subgroup of the volunteers.
The results seem to suggest that volunteering does little or nothing for wellbeing. But if true, this really would be surprising, given that volunteering encompasses activities and experiences that are known to make humans happier. Giving to others produces neural hedonic responses, reducing isolation is crucial to wellbeing, and opportunities to practice mastery and autonomy are key components of human flourishing. The CSL programme should be an especially good example of beneficial volunteering as course credit depends on students reflecting on their participation and developing learning plans, linking the volunteering to their own personal development. So what gives?
One possibility is that volunteering can involve so many activities that it doesn’t make sense to try and investigate it as a whole. One volunteer might be offered autonomy and mastery of a new domain, another might end up in stifling conditions, and would have flourished more left to her own devices.
But the data hint at another explanation. The students investigated were, subjectively speaking, in a good place: only five per cent were at risk of depression, as compared to national student rates of closer to twenty per cent. All attended a good quality university that provides plenty of socialising, stimulation and opportunities for self-improvement. Without a deficit in these aspects of life, perhaps volunteering simply doesn’t have much additional to offer. This explanation is far from certain, but it does tally with previous research suggesting that those who benefit most from volunteering tend to be people from more vulnerable backgrounds with fewer opportunities to enhance their sense of meaning or self-image.
What to conclude? That well-adjusted, privileged people should avoid volunteering? Not at all. For the most advantaged, volunteering, and charity more generally, can be seen as a duty to pay something back into society and help it run smoothly, which in the long run benefits us all. But we shouldn’t make false claims about the psychological benefits. The right kind of volunteering might be a glorious experience; at other times it might feel more like a drudgery, compared to the alternatives. Don’t do it expecting immediate gratification. Do it because it’s the right thing to do.
Image via Gettyimages.co.uk