New study fails to find any psychological benefits of volunteering, but that doesn’t mean you should stop

The London 2012 Olympic VolunteersBy 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.

Does volunteering improve well-being?

Image via Gettyimages.co.uk

Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) is Contributing Writer at BPS Research Digest

6 thoughts on “New study fails to find any psychological benefits of volunteering, but that doesn’t mean you should stop”

  1. Ok, so if the control group were the ones put on the waiting list (for volunteering) that doesn’t eliminate their feeling of usefulness and acomplishment (I can’t have a look at the research at the moment, but I guess the researches had some kind of control over those factors related to control group…), I mean, after all, they are on the waiting list, which means that they also want to volunteer or think / hope they will volunteer.
    Second, again student experiment, and it was a one time only, with such a small sample size….don’t you think your headline is a bit too much for all that :D? It’s true that this headline interested me instantly when I opened the newsletter, but come on, I find Research Digest to be a respectful news source…

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  2. Maybe because Dr.Jarret never done any volunteering experience?How can you be sure is not beneficial?How can you value people’s feelings only by collecting data?Have you asked some of them home they feel doing volunteering?I did the same research,qualitative one for my dissertation and the result was different.I had been encouraged during my Psych studies to be involved in volunteering for understanding better human behaviour and eventually finding participants for my experiments,now saying that it might not be beneficial…how can you measure happiness and self fulfilling attitude?It will be never very accurate, but researcher’s biased.If a researcher live a particular condition,say an illness,such event will modify the perception of life,but as we know life is a difficult matter sometimes and is through the sufferance that you understand better another human being…think about it,the most satisfied people by doing volunteering are those who suffer at last of one thing in life…neglect,abuse,physical or mental illness ,loss and so on.Selfish people see such attitude as not beneficial because it reflects what they are nothing else

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  3. The definition of volunteering is: A person who freely offers to take part in an enterprise. According to this study, the participants were from the “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.”
    Therefore, these students were engaged more accurately in a quid pro quo, or by definition, a favor or advantage granted or expected in return for something. Comparing these students to volunteers who freely give of their time without expecting a return is comparing apples to oranges. No wonder they felt no increase in well being. Their rewards were study credits.
    This study also says “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.”
    Could it be that these students viewed their volunteering in the same way they would view a term paper? Do term papers increase well being? My question to the author of this study would be: Have you reached out to a volunteer manager to truly understand volunteerism?

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    1. Hi Volunteerplaintalk,

      It’s true that this volunteering programme is a formal one, which means that it has reached an agreement with an authority (in this case the university) to make conditions possible for potential volunteers to participate – in this case, by accommodating the time lost by awarding university credit.

      Many volunteering studies involve exactly these kinds of accommodations – for instance one of the few randomised controlled trials ( http://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamapediatrics/fullarticle/1655500 ), which does find an effect of volunteering on health, used a sample in British Columbia, where “A requirement of all public high schools… is that students must complete 30 hours of work or volunteering to graduate.”

      The trouble is that without these agreements you tend to access people from a narrow sample: those who have both the life circumstances that allow them the free time to volunteer, and the temperament to initiate and maintain such an activity. The advantage of the formal programmes is they allow a fairer cross-section of individuals to see the benefits of giving in community-related activities. Obviously an ideal study would find a clever way to provide people of all circumstances with the opportunity to volunteer, while entirely escaping the whiff of the quid pro quo.

      The study authors do take a bit of space to address the concern: “It is worth noting that students could have taken other classes to fulfill their requirements that did not include service learning, thus this proposition is unlikely to explain the null results that we observed. Indeed, there was very limited evidence that students who perceived their participation in the CSL program as voluntary experienced greater well-being. Across the 10 well-being measures studied, intrinsic motivation predicted greater T2 well-being on only one of the well-being outcomes examined. These results suggest that the extent to which students felt like the volunteer program was elective vs. required did not play a critical role in predicting the benefits of volunteering, although more experimental research is needed to substantiate this claim.”

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      1. Thanks Alex for this clarification. I hope I did not sound too snarky in my comment. There have also been studies that suggest that people who volunteer freely already have a high sense of satisfaction and well being so volunteering was an outlet instead of a contributing factor. We volunteer managers struggle with perceptions of volunteering. We welcome more insight into motivations and results. Most of us go by our experiences and we all have experienced so many varied motivations, rewards and outcomes of volunteering. We try to engage all volunteers in meaningful experiences no matter why or how they came to us so you can imagine how encompassing this becomes. Hopefully these students will later reflect on their volunteering and find that they did take something away from their experiences. I’ve had volunteers contact me after many years to say that their experience was something that upon reflection, profoundly changed them.
        Thanks again!

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  4. You’re very welcome! I think volunteering provides experiences that are ultimately beneficial, however much they can be captured as a sense of wellbeing. Experiences, a variety of experiences oriented towards the good, are in my view a good *in themselves* and don’t really need more than that to justify them.

    Sorry for the delay – I don’t automatically get told when comments are made, so just came across this by chance.

    Best
    Alex

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