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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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Abstract

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.
Vol.:(0123456789)
Journal of Happiness Studies (2021) 22:599–624
https://doi.org/10.1007/s10902-020-00242-8
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RESEARCH PAPER
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
RickyN.Lawton1· IulianGramatki1· WillWatt2· DanielFujiwara1
Published online: 17 March 2020
© Springer Nature B.V. 2020
Abstract
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
ricky_lawton@hotmail.com
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). ...
Article
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. ...
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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). ...
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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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