“People can come out of the volunteering experience feeling very lucky.” – Ben Crough, Community and Inclusion Practice Lead at Australian Unity.
“People often go into volunteering saying, ‘I want to help someone, I want to contribute to my community’,” says Christian Stenta, Manager of Social Change in Volunteering with Australian Red Cross, an Australian Unity community partner. He says a common response once they start, though, is surprise: “Volunteers often say ‘Wow, I thought I was the one giving, but what I’ve received in return from the experience is way beyond anything I’ve imagined.’”
But what exactly is it that these volunteers are receiving? Well, research suggests it may be just the thing many of us are searching for – happiness.
Volunteering and happiness: the research
Research reveals a strong link between volunteering and happiness. People who are full-time volunteers tend to have very high wellbeing, according to the Australian Unity Wellbeing Index. This study, created in partnership with Deakin University and covering 20 years of research into the subjective wellbeing of Australians, suggests the correlation is likely a result of volunteering making us happy and happy people tending to volunteer.
However, recent research from the UK bolsters the causative element of this link, with findings that people who start to volunteer become happier over time and those who volunteer more attract greater benefits from the experience.
Giving and receiving: the volunteer experience
Ben Crough, Community and Inclusion Practice Lead at Australian Unity, sees the happiness that flows from volunteering on a regular basis. Employees who take part in Australian Unity’s internal volunteering program come back to work with a bigger smile, he says.
“They’re more engaged and share stories of how they’ve connected with someone or learnt something or impacted someone else in a positive way. People can come out of the volunteering experience feeling very lucky.”
Over at Australian Red Cross, Christian says volunteers get involved for a variety of reasons and benefit in many ways, whether it’s developing skills, pursuing a passion or making connections.
Speaking about the overall impact of volunteering on participants, he says: “It helps us feel fulfilled and connected at a deeper level, like we’re making a contribution back to society, there’s a sense of belonging, things that are all really important when we think about happiness.”
Breaking it down: the science of happiness
Science attempts to come to grips with this elusive thing called happiness by breaking it into parts.
Other factors that underpin our wellbeing include our health, our connection to our community and safety.
Whichever way you look at it, volunteering has the potential to touch every aspect of our wellbeing.
Building strong connections
Dr Darja Kragt from the University of Western Australia, an expert in work psychology and volunteering, says the social relationships formed during volunteering are a big part of the strong positive relationship between volunteering and psychological wellbeing, life satisfaction and happiness.
She points to the strength of these connections, which are forged through working towards a common purpose, often over extended periods and sometimes in difficult or emotional situations. “You develop friendships. Some volunteers we’ve interviewed will call other volunteers their family. That’s how they feel about other volunteers in their group.”
Creating a sense of purpose
As humans, we’re motivated to do something meaningful, says Darja. With such a wide variety of causes and ways to contribute, volunteering is ripe with opportunities to find purpose and meaning.
For older people who’ve retired, volunteering can fill the gap that opens up when paid employment ceases. For younger people, volunteering can give them the opportunity to fulfil more achievement-oriented goals, as well as potentially helping them to pursue side hustles or passion projects outside of their day job.
Supporting health and safety
Darja says that while being a volunteer makes you happier and more satisfied compared to people who don’t volunteer, it may also have physical health benefits – especially for older adults.
One study found that people who helped others were 25 percent more likely to say they are in excellent physical health, perhaps because of the high correlation between mental and physical health.
Bolstering your finances
While volunteering may not boost your bank balance directly, it might help you gain the skills you need to get that new job or promotion.
It can also give you a fresh financial perspective. By working with disadvantaged communities or those less comfortable than you, you might find you have a renewed appreciation for your financial position and the little luxuries you do have in your life.
Challenges and change: how to get the most from volunteering
So, it’s a simple equation, right? Volunteering equals happiness?
Like most things in life, it’s not quite that simple.
For starters, there can be barriers preventing people from tapping into the happiness boost of volunteering. Some people are too busy. Some people don’t know how to start helping. Other people simply aren’t interested.
Some types of volunteering are even associated with decreased happiness. The consistent finding of the Australian Unity Wellbeing Index is that voluntary carers have the lowest wellbeing of any group, including the unemployed.
From an organisational perspective, there are also challenges around engaging volunteers. Christian says that the way that people are looking to get involved is changing. People are wanting to define their own participation. The focus for organisations is, increasingly, on how to spark and nurture community-led action and come up with innovative ways to harness technology and the passion of people.
He says that a good example of the challenges is the recent bushfire crisis. While thousands reached out, it was a task to be able to channel the passion of those who wanted to help and connect that with people in need.
Despite all these challenges and change, the effort is worthwhile – volunteering does generally help you, organisations and your broader community in so many ways.
To harness the happiness that can be found in volunteering, experts suggest the following when looking for an opportunity:
- Choose something you’re passionate about.
- Find an opportunity to suit your lifestyle, location and time limitations.
- Think about what needs you see in your community and what you want to get out of the experience.
- Make sure it’s something you want to do and at a level that’s right for you.
- Remember that volunteering doesn’t have to always be a big or regular contribution – sometimes small things can make a difference.
Volunteering may not be the solution for everyone who’s feeling unhappy or is searching for greater wellbeing. However, if you’re feeling like you want to give back and can find the right opportunity, volunteering may just unlock a little more happiness and give you another reason to smile.
Disclaimer: Information provided in this article is of a general nature. Australian Unity accepts no responsibility for the accuracy of any of the opinions, advice, representations or information contained in this publication. Readers should rely on their own advice and enquiries in making decisions affecting their own health, wellbeing or interest.