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Does Volunteering Make Us Happier, or Are Happier People More Likely to Volunteer? Addressing the Problem of Reverse Causality When Estimating the Wellbeing Impacts of Volunteering

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Evidence of the correlation between volunteering and wellbeing has been gradually accumulating, but to date this research has had limited success in accounting for the factors that are likely to drive self-selection into volunteering by ‘happier’ people. To better isolate the impact that volunteering has on people’s wellbeing, we explore nationally representative UK household datasets with an extensive longitudinal component, to run panel analysis which controls for the previous higher or lower levels of SWB that volunteers report. Using first-difference estimation within the British Household Panel Survey and Understanding Society longitudinal panel datasets (10 waves spanning about 20 years), we are able to control for higher prior levels of wellbeing of those who volunteer, and to produce the most robust quasi-causal estimates to date by ensuring that volunteering is associated not just with a higher wellbeing a priori, but with a positive change in wellbeing. Comparison of equivalent wellbeing values from previous studies shows that our analysis is the most realistic and conservative estimate to date of the association between volunteering and subjective wellbeing, and its equivalent wellbeing value of £911 per volunteer per year on average to compensate for the wellbeing increase associated with volunteering. It is our hope that these values can be incorporated into decision-making at the policy and practitioner level, to ensure that the societal benefits provided by volunteering are better understood and internalised into decisions.
Journal of Happiness Studies (2021) 22:599–624
1 3
Does Volunteering Make Us Happier, orAre Happier
People More Likely toVolunteer? Addressing theProblem
ofReverse Causality When Estimating theWellbeing Impacts
RickyN.Lawton1· IulianGramatki1· WillWatt2· DanielFujiwara1
Published online: 17 March 2020
© Springer Nature B.V. 2020
Evidence of the correlation between volunteering and wellbeing has been gradually accu-
mulating, but to date this research has had limited success in accounting for the factors that
are likely to drive self-selection into volunteering by ‘happier’ people. To better isolate the
impact that volunteering has on people’s wellbeing, we explore nationally representative
UK household datasets with an extensive longitudinal component, to run panel analysis
which controls for the previous higher or lower levels of SWB that volunteers report. Using
first-difference estimation within the British Household Panel Survey and Understanding
Society longitudinal panel datasets (10 waves spanning about 20 years), we are able to
control for higher prior levels of wellbeing of those who volunteer, and to produce the most
robust quasi-causal estimates to date by ensuring that volunteering is associated not just
with a higher wellbeing a priori, but with a positive change in wellbeing. Comparison of
equivalent wellbeing values from previous studies shows that our analysis is the most real-
istic and conservative estimate to date of the association between volunteering and subjec-
tive wellbeing, and its equivalent wellbeing value of £911 per volunteer per year on aver-
age to compensate for the wellbeing increase associated with volunteering. It is our hope
that these values can be incorporated into decision-making at the policy and practitioner
level, to ensure that the societal benefits provided by volunteering are better understood
and internalised into decisions.
Keywords Volunteering· Altruism· Subjective wellbeing· Wellbeing valuation·
Compensating surplus· First difference
1 Introduction
Volunteering is an important element of civil society, defined broadly as “offering one’s
time for free… [including] organising or helping to run an event, campaigning, conser-
vation, raising money, providing transport or driving, taking part in a sponsored event,
* Ricky N. Lawton
Extended author information available on the last page of the article
Content courtesy of Springer Nature, terms of use apply. Rights reserved.
... The benefits of volunteering on the general population has been well established by the robust body of scientific literature. Improved mental health, reduced depression, improved life satisfaction, and having a sense of self-worth are among the many psychological benefits that have been identified (Lawton et al., 2021;Tabassum et al., 2016). However, despite the strong evidence on the general population, there is insufficient data on the benefits of volunteering among specific vulnerable groups which could possibly gain benefits from it, such as people living with mental illnesses (Held & Lee, 2020). ...
... With regards to the psychological benefits of volunteering, the bulk of evidence comes from studies on formal volunteering (Creaven et al., 2018;Lawton et al., 2021;Tabassum et al., 2016;Whillans et al., 2016). Numerous studies compared the psychological benefits of formal volunteering versus informal volunteering and found that the latter has no effect on preventing depression, whereby formal volunteering has a preventive benefit (Einolf et al., 2016). ...
Volunteering has been linked to various psychological benefits. However, studies on volunteerism among people with mental illnesses (PWMI) are scarce. The objective of this study is to explore the lived experience in volunteering activities among people with mental illnesses in Selangor. Qualitative phenomenological research design was used and data were collected using semi-structured interviews. Ten informants aged between 20-42 years old who participate in formal volunteering and diagnosed with various mental illnesses were recruited through purposive sampling method. Interview transcripts were analyzed using thematic analysis and revealed that volunteering is a mixed experience for PWMI where they have gained benefits and also face challenges and barriers. Volunteering serves as a therapeutic and productive activity that gives them a sense of self-satisfaction. However, their volunteering experience may also be disrupted by challenges that are contributed by their mental illness, such as burnouts, relapses, and triggers. Furthermore, lack of family support and stigma may pose barriers for PWMI from volunteering. This study reveals the benefits as well as obstacles in volunteering for PWMI. The findings could be used to guide policymakers, mental health professionals, and non-profit organizations in designing supported volunteering programs as an effort to promote social inclusion for this population. Finally, future studies should consider investigating the prevalence of PWMI in formal volunteering.
... 452) -appears to mediate the link between volunteering and PWB (Piliavin & Siegl, 2007). In short, the act of volunteering, in combination with other-oriented motivation, may increase psychological and social resources that then improve personal functions and PWB (Jiang et al., 2021;Konrath et al., 2012;Lawton et al., 2021;Thoits & Hewitt, 2001). ...
... Indeed, reverse causality may occur in such a way that participants with high PWB were more likely to engage in volunteering activities and to have public-interest motivation. However, several empirical studies have used longitudinal data to show that improved PWB follows volunteering and public-interest motivation (Jiang et al., 2021;Konrath et al., 2012;Lawton et al., 2021;Thoits & Hewitt, 2001). For example, Thoits and Hewitt (2001) analyzed longitudinal data from the Americans' Changing Lives survey and found that not only did volunteering have positive effects on wellbeing but also that people who had higher wellbeing initially became more involved in volunteering subsequently. ...
This study used data from 1871 college students across China to examine the relations among volunteering and PWB in 2020. Results of regression analysis indicate that volunteering had positive effects on the PWB of the students. Students whose motivation to volunteer was public interest had greater PWB, regardless of the degree to which they also reported private gain as a motivation. The significant interaction results indicate that students whose volunteer motivation included both public interest and private gains and who had high frequency of volunteering were more likely to have higher PWB. Policy and practice implications were discussed.
... Moreover, the benefits of volunteering vary by individual characteristics, such as age, social roles, and personal and social resources. Although causal inferences are limited in cross-sectional studies, growing H. Qu research using advanced estimation techniques or experimental designs aimed to better address causality has shown a plausible causal link from volunteering to subjective wellbeing (Binder, 2015;Binder & Freytag, 2013;Borgonovi, 2008;Hong & Morrow-Howell, 2010;Jongenelis et al., 2021;Lawton et al., 2021;Meier & Stutzer, 2008). ...
... Nonetheless, growing research has applied advanced estimation techniques to better address causality (e.g. two-stage least squares, matching, panel data models) and provided evidence of a plausible causal link from volunteering to subjective well-being (happiness: H. Qu Borgonovi, 2008;life satisfaction: Meier & Stutzer, 2008;Binder & Freytag, 2013;Binder, 2015;Lawton et al., 2021). Research using a quasi-experimental design also suggests that volunteering reduces depressive symptoms and functional limitations (Hong & Morrow-Howell, 2010). ...
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Abundant research has found that volunteering is associated with better subjective well-being, and the benefits of volunteering vary by individual characteristics. However, most research is based on evaluative well-being that measures how people perceive their lives overall, rather than experiential well-being that measures how people feel at the moment. Using data from the American Time Use Survey Well-being Module, this study examines whether formal volunteering is associated with daily experiential well-being (i.e. happy, sad, stress, tired, pain, meaning, net affect, U-index) and whether the associations vary by labor force status. The findings demonstrate that volunteering is generally associated with improved daily experience for those not in labor force but not the unemployed individuals. This study contributes to the growing research on individual differences in the relationship between volunteering and subjective well-being and provides both theoretical and policy implications.
... Volunteering is defined as doing work for other people or for an organization willingly or without being forced or paid to do it. It has been shown that voluntary work has important economic consequences in terms of creating economic value 1 while providing intrinsic benefits to volunteers in terms of their health and well-being (Aknin et al. 2013;Konrath 2014) and happiness (Lawton et al. 2021). ...
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We use the extension of compulsory education from five to eight years in Turkey as an instrument for educational attainment to investigate the causal effects of education on voluntary work by utilizing Turkish Time Use Survey data. Existing studies use ordinary least squares regressions and establish a positive and significant association; however, such correlation may be induced by the endogeneity problems such as omitted variable bias and reverse causality. In line with the previous studies, our OLS results also show that there is a positive association between schooling and men’s voluntary work. However, when we use the education reform as an instrument for education, a different picture emerges. The exogenous education reform increased the education levels of individuals significantly. Using the education reform as an instrument for education level, we find that increased education of compliers has a negative but insignificant causal impact on the probability and hours of voluntary work for men. Our results suggest that omitted individual factors such as ability and intelligence, and unobservable family characteristics such as values and social norms are likely to have played a role in the positive association of education with voluntary work found in OLS studies.
... Providing help is a crucial predictor of shared social identification (Levine et al., 2005), which may be especially true in a global health crisis. Previous research shows that helping behavior has a positive impact on the individual, with benefits such as generating meaning in life (Thoits, 2012), gaining resilience (Madsen et al., 2019), increasing happiness (Lawton et al., 2020), and feeling more socially connected (Dury et al., 2020). ...
This study aimed to understand whether older adults not only received but also provided help during the first COVID-19 lockdown in Belgium, which factors motivated them to help, and whether older adults differed from younger age groups in terms of helping behavior and motives. Bivariate analyses were performed using data generated from an online cross-sectional survey in Belgium ( N = 1892). The results showed that older adults who received help also provided it. This “interdependence” – mutual or reciprocal dependence – occurred regardless of age. In terms of motives for providing help, both older adults and their younger peers were primarily motivated by present-oriented and emotion-related motivation: older people were motivated to provide help by altruistic values and humanism, and enhancement motives linked to self-development. Policy implications of these results entail: during crisis situations, make use of the bond between older adults and their neighbors, such as caring communities.
... In terms of research on physical activity for example, team sport participation is associated with better mental health outcomes compared to individual participation (Guddal et al., 2019). Other research has found that young people who engage in volunteering report better well-being (Lawton et al., 2021), and these benefits are working via increased social connections (Creaven et al., 2017). While these may involve face-to-face interaction, it is worth mentioning that youth workers have also been promoting social participation of young people in photography, gaming, social media and film making in the digital space (Harvey, 2016). ...
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This study aims to examine whether the association between life satisfaction and depressive symptoms in young carers was moderated by social participation. Cross-sectional data were extracted from the 7th wave of the European Social Survey. Our sample included 673 young carers and 1606 non-carers (aged 14–18 years) drawn from 21 participating countries who completed measures of life satisfaction, social participation and depression symptoms. As expected lower life satisfaction predicted higher symptoms of depression in young carers but social participation did not. However, as predicted, social participation moderated the relationship between life satisfaction and depression, with young carers who had higher life satisfaction and higher social participation experiencing lower levels of depression symptoms. Further, this effect was strongest in those with the highest rates of social participation with peers. The implications of the link between life satisfaction, social participation and depressive symptoms in young carers is discussed.
... Certain peoples, like the Australian aborigines, may be easier satisfied with life for any given level of happiness; seeBiddle (2014).3 On the two-way causality of volunteering and happiness, seeLawton et al. (2020). ...
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Life satisfaction is likely to be more (than happiness) liable to be affected by shifts in the aspiration level, reducing the comparability of the resulting indices. Life satisfaction and/or preference may differ from happiness due to a positive valuation on the contribution to or a concern for the happiness of others. In the presence of such a divergence, levels of life satisfaction may be misleading.
... The effects of volunteering can be seen at the micro-, meso-, and macrolevels. Among the many benefits of volunteering for older people at the microlevel are increases in their psychological well-being, including life satisfaction, self-perception, happiness, and sense of purpose [3][4][5], and increases in their physical health, including protective effects on mortality, lower risk of cardiovascular incidents, and fewer functional limitations [6,7]. ...
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Volunteering can play an important role in active aging. The resource theory of volunteering posits that volunteerism depends on human, social, and cultural capital. Benefits of volunteering have been documented at the micro-, meso-, and macrolevels, positively affecting individual older people as well as their local communities and society at large. Taking a process-oriented theoretical approach, this study focused on the mesolevel factor of the environment with the purpose of determining the relationship between perceived neighborhood safety and volunteerism over the course of a decade and the extent to which this relationship differs by gender and race. Longitudinal data from the Health and Retirement Study in the United States of America between 2008 and 2018 were used ( N = 72,319 adults 60 years and older). Generalized estimating equations (GEE) with robust standard errors were employed while controlling for a number of covariates. A third of the sample volunteered in the past year (33%). The probability of volunteering among older adults who rated their perceived neighborhood safety as excellent was greater compared with those who rated their perceived neighborhood safety as fair/poor after controlling for all other model covariates (ME: 0.03, 95% CI: 0.02, 0.05). Among males rating their perceived neighborhood safety as excellent, the probability of volunteering was higher (ME: 0.04, 95% CI: 0.02, 0.07). Among females, the probability of volunteering was higher among those who perceived their neighborhood safety to be excellent (ME: 0.03, 95% CI: 0.01, 0.05) or very good (ME: 0.02, 95% CI: 0.00, 0.04). White respondents who rated their neighborhood safety as excellent (ME: 0.05, 95% CI: 0.03, 0.07) or very good (ME: 0.04, 95% CI: 0.02, 0.06) had a higher probability of volunteerism. Results were not significant among Black respondents and those who described their race as “other.” This study’s process-oriented theoretical approach indicates that initiatives aimed at improving neighborhood safety and older adults’ perceptions of neighborhood safety could increase social capital and lead older adults to engage in more volunteering, providing benefits at micro-, meso-, and macrolevels—to older individuals, their local communities, and society at large.
With the increase in urbanization in China, people's neighborhood has an important influence on their well-being. This study aims to explore the impact of neighborhood mutual support on well-being from the perspective of social work. A total of 13,486 samples from the 2016 China Labor-force Dynamics Survey were utilized. The data were analyzed by the ordered logit model and propensity score matching while controlling for individual, family, and socioeconomic features. Findings (1) The more the neighborhood mutual support, the higher individuals' degree of well-being; this conclusion is robust. 2) Neighborhood mutual support has a larger improvement effect on the well-being of groups with low social status. (3) Neighborhood mutual support improves well-being through two mechanisms: it can grow an individual's support network, helping them obtain more material support, and it enhances individuals' integration into society, improving their well-being through increased feelings of community security. (4) The influence of neighborhood mutual support is weakened when a community has formal social support (full-time social workers) because individuals can resolve their problems through formal social support, reducing their reliance on neighbors. Applications Based on the perspective of community development, understanding the influence of neighborhood mutual support on well-being is important. Social workers should adopt different intervention approaches according to characteristics of different groups to improve residents' level of neighborhood mutual support. Moreover, to promote community development, the government should consider arranging social work for less-developed communities.
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A growing literature shows that doing voluntary work not only helps the wider community but can also improve one’s own well-being. To date, however, few studies have examined the relationship between volunteering and well-being in non-US and especially in comparative data. We study this relationship using two waves of data of 18,559 individuals aged 50 and above from 12 European countries. We analyze life satisfaction impacts of change and stability in volunteering status and in the intensity (frequency) of volunteering, and explore whether these impacts differ according to life stage (age, employment status) and across countries with different norms and supports for voluntarism. Findings show that net life satisfaction is higher among longer-term, recent, and former volunteers than among stable (long-term) non-volunteers. There are no significant life satisfaction differences between the three groups with volunteer experience. Equally, similar levels of life satisfaction are observed among people who have increased and decreased their frequency of volunteering. It thus seems to be the experience and not the dynamics (i.e., change or persistence) of volunteering that is associated with well-being. Findings further suggest life course variation in the association between volunteering and well-being, as the relationship is stronger for older and long-term non-employed (mostly retired) individuals than for their middle-aged and working counterparts. The relationship is also stronger in countries where volunteering is less common and less institutionally supported.
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Background The bias caused by drop-out is an important factor in large population-based epidemiological studies. Many studies account for it by weighting their longitudinal data, but to date there is no detailed final approach for how to conduct these weights. Methods In this study we describe the observed longitudinal bias and a three-step longitudinal weighting approach used for the longitudinal data in the MoMo baseline (N = 4528, 4–17 years) and wave 1 study with 2807 (62%) participants between 2003 and 2012. Results The most meaningful drop-out predictors were socioeconomic status of the household, socioeconomic characteristics of the mother and daily TV usage. Weighting reduced the bias between the longitudinal participants and the baseline sample, and also increased variance by 5% to 35% with a final weighting efficiency of 41.67%. Conclusions We conclude that a weighting procedure is important to reduce longitudinal bias in health-oriented epidemiological studies and suggest identifying the most influencing variables in the first step, then use logistic regression modeling to calculate the inverse of the probability of participation in the second step, and finally trim and standardize the weights in the third step.
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This study aims to explore relationships between life satisfaction, volunteering frequency and contribution to self, family and community for youth in Lithuania and to compare these relationships for boys and girls. Data from a two-wave longitudinal study of a youth community sample was used. The sample size for this study was N = 1,140 (52.7% girls and 47.3% boys). The age of participants ranged from 14 to 19 at T1 (Mage=16.61, SDage=1.24 at T1) and from 15 to 19 at T2 (Mage=17.1, SDage=0.93 at T2). Structural equation modeling (SEM) was used to measure and analyze the relationships of observed and latent variables. The results indicate that life satisfaction and volunteering frequency positively predict contribution to self, family (for boys only) and community.
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Despite concerns about reporting biases and interpretation, self-assessed health (SAH) remains the measure of health most used by researchers, in part reflecting its ease of collection and in part the observed correlation between SAH and objective measures of health. Using a unique Australian data set, which consists of survey data linked to administrative individual medical records, we present empirical evidence demonstrating that SAH indeed predicts future health, as measured by hospitalizations, out-of-hospital medical services and prescription drugs. Our large sample size allows very disaggregate analysis and we find that SAH predicts more serious, chronic illnesses better than less serious illnesses. Finally, we compare the predictive power of SAH relative to administrative data and an extensive set of self-reported health measures; SAH does not add to the predictive power of future utilization when the administrative data is included and improves prediction only marginally when the extensive survey-based health measures are included. Clearly there is value in the more extensive survey and administrative health data as well as greater cost of collection.
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Background Community participation interventions such as volunteering have been identified in the UK Government’s ‘Building the Big Society’ policy (2010) as a way of engaging people in their local communities and improving social capital, while the Marmot Review (2010) concluded they may have potential public health benefits such as improving wellbeing and decreasing health inequalities. Internationally, 2011 saw the European ‘Year of the Volunteer’, while the US Corporation for National and Community Service Strategic Plan (2011-2015) advocates supporting volunteer’s wellbeing and prioritising recruitment and engagement of underrepresented populations. Within this context, we examined the effect of formal volunteering on volunteer’s physical and mental health and survival, and explored the influence of volunteering type and intensity on health outcomes. Methods We sought evidence from experimental and cohort studies comparing the physical and mental health outcomes and mortality for a volunteering group (intervention) compared with a non-volunteering group (control). We searched electronic databases (Cochrane Library, Medline, Embase, PsychINFO, CINAHL, ERIC, HMIC, SSCI, ASSIA, Social Care Online, Social Policy and Practice) from inception to January 2013 and used citation tracking. No language, country or date restrictions were applied. Methodological quality was appraised and a risk of bias score generated. Data were synthesised using vote counting and random effects meta-analysis of mortality risk ratios. Results 40 papers were selected: 5 randomised controlled trials (RCTs, 7 papers); 4 non-RCTs; and 17 cohort studies (29 papers). While most cohort studies were large and well designed (25/29 low risk bias, 4/29 moderate risk), most RCTs (4 studies) were at moderate or high risk of bias (e.g. small samples). Cohort studies show volunteering has favourable effects on depression, life satisfaction, wellbeing but not on physical health. However, these findings were largely unconfirmed by experimental studies. Meta-analysis of 5 cohort studies found volunteers to be at lower risk of mortality (risk ratio: 0.78 [95% CI 0.66, 0.90]). There was insufficient evidence to demonstrate a consistent influence of volunteering type or intensity on outcomes. Conclusion Observational evidence suggests that volunteering benefits mental health and survival although the causal mechanisms are unclear and selection effects cannot be discounted. Consequently, there is limited robustly designed research to guide the development of volunteering as a public health promotion intervention. Future studies should explicitly map intervention design to clear health outcomes as well as use pragmatic RCT methodology to test effects.
Based upon the results of a national survey conducted in Taiwan, this study investigates the effects of volunteering on life satisfaction. We used a univariate ordered probit model and a simultaneous bivariate ordered probit model to compare the potential endogeneity between volunteering and life satisfaction. An exogenous military service variable was included in the bivariate model to correct the endogeneity of volunteering on life satisfaction. The results of the univariate ordered probit model suggest that volunteering has no effect on life satisfaction. However, the results from the simultaneous bivariate ordered probit model indicate volunteering has a significant positive effect on life satisfaction. The failure to account for endogeneity appears to underestimate the effect of volunteering on life satisfaction.
A standard concern with long term longitudinal studies is that of attrition over time. Together with initial non-response this typically leads to biased model estimates unless a suitable form of adjustment is carried out. The standard approach to this has been to compute weights based upon the propensity to respond and to drop out and then carry out weighted analyses to compensate for response bias. In the present paper we argue that this approach is statistically inefficient, because it drops incomplete data records, is inflexible, and in practice gives rise to undue complexity involving a proliferation of weighting systems for different analyses. Instead we set out an alternative approach that makes use of recently developed imputation procedures for handling missing data and show how this can be used to improve the quality of the statistical analysis. An example analysis is given using the Longitudinal Study of Australian Youth (LSAY). © Laia Becares, Yvonne Kelly, Scott Montgomery, Amanda Sacker 2016.
This chapter reviews research on the relationship between giving money (i.e., philanthropy) and time (i.e., volunteering) and givers' psychological wellbeing. It summarize a wide body of research literature suggesting correlational, longitudinal, and experimental links between giving time and money to others and psychological wellbeing. The chapter examines the extent to which these effects generalize across cultures, circumstances, types of givers, and types of recipients. Because most of the literature also does not offer explanations as to why giving should improve psychological wellbeing, it also outlines a potential neurobiological model that may help to explain such an effect. This theoretical model of caregiving motivation can help to specify under which situations, and why, giving should lead to better living. The chapter ends with a discussion of practical implications of this review for both givers and nonprofit organizations.
This study explores the causal direction between happiness and charitable giving. Through the application of Cohen’s path analysis, the main purpose of the study is to find evidence which of the possible causal directions—the one from giving to happiness or from happiness to giving—is the more dominant one. To that aim the authors use data from the German Socio-Economic Panel 2009/10. In a sample of 6906 donors, the relationships between monetary giving and life satisfaction were assed. Furthermore, we controlled for different variables such as age, gender, and marital status. Contradictory to the hypotheses development, the results of the Cohen’s path analysis indicate that the causal direction from happiness to charitable giving is the more dominant one. Through the study and our initial results we contribute to theory by highlighting the ambiguous causal relationship between the focal constructs and provide a statistical method to investigate such unclear causal relationships. We discuss how happiness, particularly the affective aspect, can be utilized by nonprofit managers to raise fundraising effectiveness and suggest areas for further research.
Volunteering positively impacts on life satisfaction and mental well-being over the deciles of the distribution for a sample of the British populace from 1996 to 2008 (BHPS data set); however, this effect is decreasing for those in the upper parts of the well-being distribution. This can be seen as support for the contention that volunteering can play a protective role for individuals and increase their well-being in the face of otherwise unsatisfactory life conditions. Looking at the effect on satisfaction with life domains, there is evidence for a positive impact of volunteering on satisfaction with health, one’s social life and amount and use of leisure time.