Why volunteering makes us happy

Three people smiling

Good news for 2015! Although there has been what seems like an endless succession of books and articles about how to think happy, we now have an impressively researched book about how to behave happy.  And how to incorporate these findings into our everyday lives.

The book is Happiness by Design by Professor Paul Dolan.  The book’s thesis is that a happy existence requires not only pleasure but purpose and that we should engineer our lives to allocate time and attention to matters that yield both.

A professor of behavioural science at the London School of Economics, Dolan is a former member of the Cabinet Office’s ‘nudge unit’ and part of the Office of National Statistics well being team; he has also advised the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence.

Among his top recommendations for happiness are:

– Don’t spend on consumer items, spend on experiences.  Money never brings people the satisfaction they imagine.

– Surround yourself with people who bring you joy.  Social contact makes us happy.

– Volunteer:  A structured form of social contact based around being nice makes us happiest of all.

– Become a neophile, a lover of new activities (i.e. yoga)

Of course, we at Reach Volunteering were delighted to see volunteering as one of the top recommendations for happiness.  I emailed Professor Dolan and asked what in particular it was about volunteering that makes you happier.  He said, “We get the feedback that we are helping people.  It gives us both pleasure and purpose in the experience.”

What Professor Dolan said is more than substantiated in the comments we get from Reach volunteers about their experiences with those charities they are helping.

Here are just two responses from our files. Loretta Balfour was placed by Reach as a business mentor with the Prince’s Trust, a charity dedicated to improving the lives of disadvantaged young people.  What does Loretta, a former executive with the Estee Lauder Companies, get out of her work with the Trust?

“It’s been a great experience” Loretta said.  “Young people come in who have had difficulties in life, are set on a path or maybe not – and don’t necessarily know how to move forward.  When you see how they progress, you know you’ve made a difference.”

“I wanted to put my management accountancy skills to good use,” said Alan Flack when asked why he decided to volunteer.  Reach put Alan in touch with a range of charities that urgently needed his particular financial, business development and project management skills.  Over a period of years, Alan chose to work with a number of groups including Bristol Mediation, The Princess Royal Trust, Carers Centre Bristol and The Envolve Partnership for Sustainability, playing a key role in bringing about improved operational effectiveness and enhanced business development capability.

Of the benefits of volunteering, Alan says, “I get to meet a wide range of people and to help organisations that can’t afford paid professional help.  My involvement with the charities has opened up worlds I didn’t know existed.”

What could we do, we asked Professor Dolan, to get more people volunteering:

“Draw more attention to the pleasure and purpose people experience when volunteering,” he said.   “Making people’s volunteering visible is also motivating, celebrating volunteering, making it public, and making it transparent.”

We are pleased to report we are doing just that and are encouraging more volunteering organisations to do the same.

If you want to share your skills with a UK charity, find out about our latest skilled volunteering opportunities at www.reachskills.org.uk. And I hope it makes you happy!

 

A retired writer, Jeanne is Reach’s Volunteer Publicity Officer. You can read more about Jeanne in her series on the Laterlife website.
March 26th, 2015 by