Volunteering — giving one’s time freely to benefit another person, group or organization — may help improve the volunteer’s mental well-being, although that benefit mostly occurs among people who are middle-aged or older, a new British study reports.
Plenty of previous research has suggested a strong, positive association between volunteering and both mental and physical health, but those studies have mostly involved people aged 60 or older. The authors of the current study wanted to see if volunteering was linked to similar benefits among younger people.
To do that, the researchers analyzed data from the British Household Panel Survey, which asked questions annually of a representative sample of adults from 5,000 British households between 1991 and 2008.
The survey included questions about volunteering, as well as the General Health Questionnaire (GHQ), which scored people on a scale of 0 to 36, based on their answers to questions about happiness, mental distress (including depression) and well-being.
The analysis revealed that during each year of the survey, only about 20 percent of the people, on average, had done any volunteer work. Women tended to volunteer more often than men (22 percent vs. 19.5 percent). Age made an even bigger difference. About 25 percent of the respondents aged 60 to 74 said they had volunteered within the previous 12 months, compared with 17 percent of those aged 15 to 29.
Across all age groups, people who volunteered tended to have better (lower) GHQ scores, on average, than those who hadn’t (10.7 vs. 11.4 on that 0-36 scale). The best (lowest) scores occurred among the people who volunteered frequently (at least once a week).
Most interesting, however, was what the researchers discovered when they examined the relationship between volunteering, GHQ score and age.
Generally, regardless of whether individuals volunteered, their GHQ score tended to become worse (higher) with age. But after people reached their early 40s, an interesting divergence took place. The GHQ scores continued to rise for people who never volunteered, but they decreased for those who donated their time to a good cause, whether they did so frequently, infrequently (once a month to several times a year), or rarely (once a year).
The positive association between volunteering and mental health and well-being continued right up into old age (80 and beyond).
These findings held even after the researchers adjusted for a variety of potentially confounding factors, such as household income, marital status and educational level.
“Our study indicates that the relationship between volunteering and mental well-being varies across the life course, which suggests that volunteering may be more strongly associated with mental well-being at some points of the life course than others,” the study’s authors write.
Why would volunteering not be associated with mental benefits during early adulthood?
“One explanation might be that during younger ages, volunteering may be perceived of as yet another obligatory task to fulfill in order to be a good student parent, worker and so forth, so it does not have beneficial effects on health,” propose the researchers.
“The benefits of volunteering may also accrue from early middle age because of the social roles and family connections, which are more likely to promote volunteering at that stage of the life course,” they add. “An example would be that many parents of school-aged children become involved in school-related activities in various voluntary capacities.”
This research has several important limitations. It was observational, which means it can show only a correlation, not a causal link, between volunteering and people’s happiness and mental wellbeing. Other factors, not addressed in the study, may explain the findings. For example, people who go out to help others may be in better overall health than their non-volunteering peers. Their good health — not their volunteering activities — may therefore explain their more positive sense of wellbeing.
In addition, the differences in GHQ scores between the volunteers and non-volunteers were relatively small. It’s not quite clear how meaningful this difference is.
Finally, this study involved British adults. The results might not be applicable to people living elsewhere, including here in the United States.
Still, the authors of the study call their findings “noteworthy,” and argue that greater efforts should be made to involve more middle-aged and older individuals in volunteering-related activities.
“Volunteering action might provide those groups with greater opportunities for beneficial activities and social contacts, which in turn may have protective effects on health status,” they write. “Particularly, with the ageing of the population, it is imperative to develop effective health promotion for this last third of life, so that those living longer are healthier.