Volunteering makes people Happy

by Liberating Words










Happiness of Giving:

The Intrinsic Value of Giving and Volunteering on the Quality of Life

Michelle R. Wallpe

Ball State University

EDAC 646

March 17, 2012
















Happiness of Giving:

The intrinsic value of giving and volunteering on the quality of life

HAPPINESS. Can volunteering make people happy?

In this time of uncertainty. Of job loss. Investment and retirement loss. The economy, and the earth being hit by severe disaster. Does happiness still exist?

If so, how is it measured and achieved? Theories exist regarding the benefits of volunteering. One is that volunteering makes one feel better, giving people a kind of ‘happiness’ factor.  Another theory is that volunteering helps people stay connected and part of a bigger picture. Whether volunteering in the community or because of a particular cause or purpose. Volunteering speculatively extends people’s lives. Volunteering improves physical health. It allows people to spend time instead of money. Makes people HAPPY by focusing on the positive in life. And strengthens faith by allowing an outlet for people to express and share spiritually. Getting involved seems to only have benefits, not consequences. So, is there evidence that there really is Happiness in Giving?  Where do these theories come from? This paper attempts to answer just that. Here are the findings.

“The happy man is not he who seems thus to others, but who seems thus to himself.”

– Publilius Syrus. (Lyubomirsky, p. 15)


The subjective definition of happiness, as defined by Lyubomirsky:

“individuals who perceive themselves as happy also think well of themselves, are

optimistic about their futures, experience a predominance of positive emotions, and are

extraverted. In addition, happy individuals did not appear to be inclined towards

depression or neuroticism.” (p. 16)


“the ultimate judge of happiness should be: whoever lives inside a person’s skin. The

perception of whether one has had a “happy life” arguably, is powerfully driven by

cultural expectations. For example, in the US, a happy life is said to consist of good

health, a good marriage, raising children, having a satisfying career, and owning a home,

preferably with a dog and a “white picket fence.” Although a life characterized by these

things might be “happy,” its protagonist might not.” (p. 16)

Their subjective assessment was derived from asking four (4) simple questions ranging in happiness from 1 to 7. The test takers were asked if they felt happy, were happy compared to their peers, were depressed and if they were happy most of the time. Their simple and short subjective test turned out to be very effective, accepted and well understood.

Dr Albert Schweitzer, coined the medical missionary by colleagues, defines happiness as: “The only ones among you who will be really happy are those who will have sought and found how to serve.” (Brown, 2007, p. 1) Suggesting that the only way to happiness is by giving and volunteering, servicing others. “We might extend this to include altruistic service of some kind as an essential element of becoming truly healthy.” (Brown, 2007, p. 1) Being healthy in this context, suggests a positive attitude, which is an attitude of giving, a healthy body, healthy mind and therefore a happy life.

As defined by a Happiness Study, or “The Happiness-enhancing Activities and Positive Practices Inventory (HAPPI).” (Henricksen and Stephens, 2012, p. 1) HAPPI, comprises 22-items that assess the importance and engagement of various happiness-enhancing activities. Items were designed to assess activities in six categories:

  • “‘Other–focused’ (speaking to or doing something with family, speaking to or doing something with good friends, spending quality time with your partner,

meeting with others who share something in common, spending time helping others)

  • ‘Personal recreation and interests’ (spending time on hobbies or interests, spending quality time alone doing your own thing, doing something you find

amusing, going on trips, going on outings, spending time with a pet/animal,

exercising or doing some other form of physical activity)

  • ‘Thoughts and attitudes’ (counting your blessings, framing things in a more positive light)
  • ‘Achievement’ (working on something you get a sense of achievement from,

doing something you find mentally challenging, devoting effort to a work goal,

working towards achieving a property goal, devoting time to an important personal goal)

  • ‘Spiritual’ (spiritual activities e.g., praying, meditating, worshipping)
  • ‘Self-concordant work’ (doing something that uses your particular strengths and skills, working in a role that you enjoy).” (Henricksen and Stephens, 2012, p. 7)


Self-concordant work, personal recreation and people subscales, and the other subjective

well-being measures, demonstrated the strongest relationships with happiness. Thus, providing support for the suggestion that certain activities may be better than others in relation to their influence on happiness levels. The HAPPI study, also found that “social affiliation was one of the most robust predictors of happiness.” (Henricksen and Stephens, 2012, p.14)

Eisenberger’s findings note that giving increases the well being of both the giver and recipient. Stating; “data highlight(s) the uniquely beneficial properties of support giving and suggest that supportive exchanges may increase the well-being not only of the receiver but of the giver as well” (p. 5) when discussing the healing power of touch to patience and their loved ones.

When a team of social psychologists, wanted to spur policy makers to promote philanthropy, they gave students envelopes containing either $5 or $20 and told them how to spend it. Those who spent the money on others, “donating to charity or giving a gift, were happier at the end of the day, than those who blew it on themselves, to pay a bill or indulge in a treat.” (Youngsteadt, 2008, p.1)  The psychologist proved that philanthropy equals happiness, making “for a more “altruistic–and happier—population.” (Youngsteadt, 2008, p.1)

So, how much control then, do we have over our own happiness? If giving makes us happy, then by simply making the choice to give, leads to positive action (giving), making us happier? The first step is to choose, says a mother who just lost her son. She is quoted, saying “It’s easier to forget your own loss when you are busy helping others” (Brown, 2007, p. 1). She began a volunteer ambulance service and became an EMT, that allowed her to focus on what she had control over, while grieving. And wanted to make a difference so that other parents would not have to experience the pain she did after her son’s death. She chose to focus on what made her happiest after her loss and found that in turn she was able to make others happy too. “Medical scientists are beginning to discover what this woman already knows: that there is healing power in helping others” (Brown, 2007, p. 1).

In  Oakland, CA, an experimental social science study (Neimark, 2007), has been conducted over the last almost 100 years on at least 200 people. It’s one of the largest and longest running studies of its kind. When they started the study, which consists mostly of interviews, they were trying to simply see what makes a happy life. So what’s the key to generativity, or guiding and establishing happiness in the next generation? Wink, the psychologist, overseeing Neimarks study, explains:

“Generativity can’t exist unless you have the sense that you can make a difference. We’ve found that empathy and warmth are important, so that you can feel the suffering of others. And it’s equally important to have a desire to give and help. But what leads the way is a healthy sense of self that allows you to mobilize and act productively upon the world.” (p. 1)


A healthy sense of self? A self one can be proud of? One that is mobile and

productive. Is that one that can give while seeing the results of ones giving? To be proud and give of self. That equals happiness? Is that all?

Doctors from Harvard University, in another study, showed students a video of Mother Teresa. They measured antibodies in the students before and after the video and found that “merely watching (the) film on selfless service strengthened the immune response in the students” (Brown, 2007, p. 1). The article goes on to talk about the mind body connection and how giving through service and volunteering is just one way to help stay healthy. So, giving can make people mentally as well as physically healthy AND happy?

Modern medicine, they say, has known for years that there is a connection between mind and body. The problem has been in communicating that connection to others and training ourselves to live out our manifestations. Their theories go so far as to state that we have control over our health (through our minds). In fact, they have noticed a trend in cancer patients. They noticed that most of the patients with cancer have had past traumatic experiences in their lives, creating a pattern and relationship between past trauma and cancer. Thus, thru out the rest of this paper, examples will start to make sense of the importance of giving. How giving leads to mental and physical health and happiness. How, through giving, we each have control over our happiness outcome in life. According to Brown’s (2007) article:

 “The power of the mind to influence the body is beyond question; a negative mental attitude can threaten one’s health, and a positive mental attitude will trigger changes within the body that promote health and healing. Thus, while research shows that social isolation is a major health risk factor, it also shows that people who do volunteer work are much less likely to suffer illness. The close interpersonal relationships and community involvement that occur with volunteer service are tailor-made to enhance the healing process.”(p.1)  


            A number of recent studies have been conducted that indicate there are even more physical benefits of volunteering. Some of these studies “use mortality as the outcome variable – they permit the conclusion that volunteering is causing good health.” (Musick and Wilson, 1999, p.10).  Prior to this theory, it was understood that only healthy people volunteer. They examined the effect of volunteering on the onset of serious illness and functional disability. They found that women who volunteer on an intermittent basis, scored higher on functional ability than those who had not.

The emotional effects of giving, stated above are outlined again in another study between giving of time versus the donating of money. Wendy and Jennifer, ask for time instead of monetary donations when fundraising for their cause. Their findings state that:

“answering a question about one’s intention to volunteer time makes salient the

emotional significance of the event, whereby people view charity as a means

toward happiness. This mind-set in turn leads to a more positive inclination toward giving to charity and hence an increase in actual contributions.” (p. 3)


“Further, time and money differ in their value (whereby the value of time is more

ambiguous than one’s value of money), leading to more flexible justifications of expenditures of time than money (Okada and Hoch 2004). Time and money also differ in their perceived appropriateness as resources for donation. For instance, people prefer to donate time (over money) to charities when their self is highly invested in a cause.” (p.3)


“An influential body of research shows that asking people questions about their intentions for an action can dramatically change the likelihood that people will later perform the action (e.g., Morwitz et al. 1993; Schwarz 1999; Sherman 1980; Sprott et al. 2006). For example, consumers who received (vs. did not receive) a survey asking them about their automobile purchase intentions were more likely to purchase a new automobile in the subsequent 6 months.” (p.3)


“thinking about time activates goals of emotional well-being and beliefs involving

personal happiness. In contrast, thinking about money suppresses such emotional goals and instead activates goals of economic utility and beliefs about attainment of such goals. These two mind-sets align with those described by bimodal models of cognitive function (emotional vs. rational), empathy states (“hot” vs. “cold;”), and modes of decision making (guided by heart vs. mind). These mind-sets shift over time and across individuals and situations. For example, as people age, they increasingly adopt a more emotional mind-set and are guided by socio-emotional goals (e.g., positive social interactions), whereas younger adults tend to be guided by more cognitive-based goals.” (p.4)


The idea that the consideration of time, particularly how to spend one’s time, may

activate an emotional mind-set, born from three sets of findings.

First, time involves, an experience. “Both real and imagined, experiences are accompanied by feelings and emotions” (Schwarz and Clore 1996). “Thus, thoughts of spending time doing an activity naturally evoke feelings and often increase the motivation to attain positive emotions” (“How do I feel about it?”). “Second, recent research suggests that experiences (spending time doing an activity) are more directly associated with feeling happy than are nonexperiential material acquisitions.” “That is, an experience, such as going to a show, creates greater happiness than does consuming a material product of similar economic value. Third, emerging research suggests that the salience of the concept of time in life can directly activate goals of emotional meaning.”(p. 4)


“In contrast, the consideration of how one might spend money should activate a very different type of goal. Money, as the most common form of currency for economic exchange, puts a quantifiable value to purchases and consumption. Consequently, thinking about money (relative to time) is likely to evoke a value-maximizing, prompting people to think about value in a nonambiguous manner. Indeed, when people invest money rather than time in a purchase, they demand unambiguous satisfaction from the consumption.” (p. 4)


“In contrast, when time is invested, people are able to flexibly determine whether the consumption was worth the time. Thus, money appears to activate a mind-set that focuses on maximal, quantifiable utility.” (p. 4)


“We argue that these distinct mind-sets are likely to cause the act of giving to be viewed in different lights. With an emotional mind-set, the person is more likely to see the implications of charitable giving in terms of its emotional meaning, that is, how giving is related to positive emotions and personal happiness.” (p.4)


According to a study conducted by law students at Duke University, “Volunteering is believed to foster interpersonal trust, toleration and empathy for others, and respect for the common good.” (Musick and Wilson, 1999, p. 8)  This, in turn, makes volunteers, people who are less likely to engage in socially destructive or pathological behavior, suggesting that if more people volunteer, there is less likelihood of people preying on other people and less vandalism. In fact they also found through their study that, students who had undertaken volunteer work, were less likely to have risky behavior such as skipping school and using drugs. “Involvement in social clubs had no effect on such risky behavior, while participation in team sports actually increased the likelihood.” (Musick and Wilson, 1999, p. 8) Proving that focusing on giving to someone else or a greater cause, made people happy and having less cause for engaging in risky behavior.

Is there a specific type of volunteer work that produces more ‘happiness’ than another? According to Borgonovi, evidence supports that religious based volunteer work is very ‘happy’.


“Our results suggest that volunteer labor is positively correlated with both indicators of well-being. We concentrate on formal volunteering for religious groups and organizations and employ a second stage least squares regression framework to address reverse causation, self-selection and omitted variable bias. Results indicate that religious volunteering has a substantial, causal effect on happiness but not on health. We review the literature investigating the causes of well-being premiums among volunteers and hypothesize that volunteering might increase happiness by reducing people’s concerns for status.” (p. 12)


Dr. Maureen Anderson, in her seminar series on Marriage, talks about how focusing on the positive can change your brains chemistry (or your physical and mental health). Dr. Maureen is a pastor at one of the largest Christian churches in Mesa, AZ. I have had the privilege to attend her seminar. In this series, she is referring to times when spouses fight and suggests that even in a fight, if you remember and focus on the positive qualities your spouse possesses, you will not stay mad for long. She also uses this theory to remind Christians that in 90 days, while focusing their minds and action only on the positive aspects of life (people, spouse, outcomes, community involvement, giving and situations) their brain chemistry can be permanently changed and they will start to act, think and be more positive.

The Neimark article and Wink study mentioned earlier, outlines another finding. Suggesting that there is a connection between giving and faith, completing the cycle of the happiness of giving.

“Generativity is also linked to faith—both organized religion and a kind of autonomous

spirituality that may take diverse forms. (The study) compared the impact of traditional religion and a more eclectic, diffuse spirituality that might encompass meditation, Eastern religion and shamanism. Both score equally well for instilling generativity in people, but more traditionally religious individuals see altruism and giving as the natural outpouring of their faith, while for more eclectic spiritual seekers, generativity includes a desire to effect others or to pass on worthwhile skills and knowledge.” (Neimark, 2007, p.1)


A poignant quote from Tom, a Happiness blogger, with Let U B U, is quoted as saying:

“Give, accept, reciprocate. The gift must always move.” (p. 1)

Which illustrates the simplicity of the concept of giving. At the same time, it is effective for both the giver and recipient. That receiving is just as important as giving. That giving is something that should stay in motion.

            Based on the numerous studies and research findings presented, it appears that there is more than enough evidence that volunteering leads to happiness. That giving and volunteering connects people to a larger picture, within the community. With this knowledge and understanding of giving and volunteering as the vehicle to a more enriched life, communities and non-profits might want to begin advertising in a different way. Stating the happiness benefits of volunteering to their community members. It might be good for communities and organizations to begin reaching out to those who are unemployed, underserved or unrepresented. Opportunities for volunteer help may pop up in unexpected ways due to targeting a different audience. Not that the current audience should become null or void but it may open additional opportunities for new organizations, volunteer roles and interactions among volunteers.

Volunteering is recommended in all communities and stages of life to foster, faith, a positive lifestyle, extending one’s life, improving physical and mental health. People even seem happier when giving of their time, instead of giving money to a cause. It also seems as though people actively seek out ways to give and volunteer as they grow older. The research has shown that as we age, mortality becomes more ‘real’ and we seek more ways to make a difference, leave a mark on society and give so that we feel part of a bigger picture. If you want to live more purposefully, happily and connect with the bigger picture and purpose, find a way to give and start volunteering in your community. Start painting a different life picture. – A happier picture!







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Champion Marriage by Song of Solomon. Lesson 6.

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            Law and Contemporary Problems. Retrieved from

http://www.law.duke.edu/journals/cite.php?62+Law+&+Contemp.+Probs.+141+(Autum n+1999

[m1] Neimark, J. (2007). Giving makes us Happy. Retrieved from


Tom (2011). New Research Suggests: Find Happiness by Giving. Let U Be U. Retrieved from


Youngsteadt, E. (2008). The Secret to Happiness? Giving. Science. Retrieved from




 [m1]Should the reference look like this?:  62 Law & Contemp. Probs. 141 (Autumn 1999). With no ‘retrieved from, hyperlink?’