Are Volunteers Happier?

New SHARE-based study explores the effects of voluntary work on life satisfaction in midlife and old age.

(January 2019) Worldwide, volunteering provides assistance and relief to people in need. An increasing number of studies suggests that voluntary workers themselves are also experiencing a number of health and well-being benefits through their commitment. However, only a handful of these analyses explore the effects of volunteering in a cross-national setting with varying cultural and institutional contexts. Thus, Hansen et al. take up the question: How does volunteering impact one’s life satisfaction?

Measuring voluntary engagement and life satisfaction

The researchers explored how changes in volunteering impact life satisfaction according to one’s life stage (age, employment status), and across countries with different cultural norms and support for voluntary work. For their analyses, Hansen et al. draw upon data from over 16.000 participants in the first and second wave of the Survey of Health, Ageing and Retirement in Europe (SHARE). Additionally, the data are complemented by information from 1.606 participants in the Norwegian study on Life Course (NorLAG). The final dataset comprised data from 18.559 individuals aged 50 and above from 12 European countries.

Life satisfaction is higher among volunteers

In accordance with previous studies, Hansen et al. find that being, becoming and having been a volunteer are all associated with higher life satisfaction compared to non-volunteering. Furthermore, the analysis shows that regular volunteering is linked to greater life satisfaction only among those aged 65 or older and the longer-term non-employed, e.g. people who are retired. On the country level, Hansen et al. observe that life satisfaction among volunteers is higher in countries where social spending is low and volunteering remains rather unpopular. Still, the data could be driven by individuals who are highly satisfied with their life anyway, instead of increasing their life satisfaction through volunteering.

Volunteering could help expand one’s social circle and improve health

Although the specific causal mechanisms of voluntarism and life satisfaction cannot be exactly determined yet, the study by Hansen et al. indicates that voluntary work could serve as a source for self and relational-esteem. On the basis of previous SHARE-based studies, it could be argued that voluntarism in midlife and old age could help expand the individual social circle and, therewith, improve one’s health and well-being.

Study by Thomas Hansen, Marja Aartsen, Britt Slagsvold and Christian Deindl (2018): Dynamics of Volunteering and Life Satisfaction and Old Age: Findings from 12 European Countries. Social Sciences 7(5).


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