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Jul 30, 2019 | by Centre

Does volunteering make us happier or do happy people volunteer?

This week’s guest blog is from Will Watt, Head of Product at Jump, a social enterprise that measures and values social impact. Here, Will outlines findings from Jump’s newly released report Happy Days which examines new data and larger sample sizes to understand the relationship between volunteerings and wellbeing. 

In 2014 the Jump team were responsible for Hidden Diamonds which explored the impacts and wellbeing value of volunteering to sports volunteers. This work found that volunteering was positively associated with wellbeing. In 2016 the GIVERS report further investigated whether these findings held true for other types of volunteering using national datasets (British Household Panel Survey, Taking Part, and Community Life) and using more robust statistical techniques. The findings were still positive, but the doubts remained.

The question was:

“Isn’t it just that people who volunteer are already happier and more affluent, rather than volunteering causing any actual improvements in wellbeing?” 

Well, in short, no. 

Volunteering has a positive impact, formal volunteering even more so

The Happy Days report builds on the work to date by looking at more recent national datasets – those mentioned above, as well as Understanding Society – with even bigger sample sizes and using even more advanced econometric techniques. We were able to further explore and better understand the relationship between volunteering and wellbeing. 

It addressed the problem of reverse causality by analysing the difference (in longitudinal data sets) in wellbeing for an individual who starts or stops volunteering. It found that:

  • Volunteering has a significant positive impact on individual wellbeing – roughly equal to the effect of living in a safe area
  • Formal volunteering as part of a group improves wellbeing significantly more than informal, irregular volunteering. 

Diversity (of income and ethnicity) in volunteering 

The work to date had already demonstrated that the benefits of volunteering are magnified for some marginalised groups. So, alongside the Happy Days work, in 2019 we brought together BT, Cancer Research UK, National Trust, and Sport England in a consortium to look at diversity (of income and ethnicity) and volunteering. 

This distribution of impact of volunteering is important in light of the emphasis in the 2018 HM Treasury Green Book on distributional impacts. The insightful results of this work can be found in The ABC of BAME and A Bit Rich reports, and I’ll also be covering this aspect in an upcoming blog.

Jump has learnt a lot about volunteering and wellbeing over the last few years. The good news is that volunteering is associated with higher levels of wellbeing, better general health and fewer mental health problems and that this finding has stood up to repeated analysis using the full range of quantitative evidence available in the UK. 

The Jump team has undertaken extensive work on wellbeing and we are hard-pressed to find an activity that is so good for the individual and the wider community. 

This is why Jump will continue to develop our understanding of volunteering and help organisations with practical insights – so that more people benefit from volunteering, and we all become a bit happier and healthier as a result.