Studies show a connection between volunteering and positive mental health

When you do volunteer work, you are part of a meaningful community. And that can help you feel less stressed – especially in periods where you’re not thriving at work.

In his work as a career counsellor, Morten Esmann often talks to IDA members who are unhappy in their work or are stressed, but who do not have the opportunity to change jobs.

In that situation, Morten Esmann often encourages them to consider volunteering. Because although having to work more when you are stressed may seem like throwing gasoline on the fire, it often has the opposite effect.

"Voluntary work can really do the same as a good job. It is meaningful, you have a say and you feel that you are developing”.

"Of course, you should not increase your activity level if you are constantly in the red zone and feel pressured. For many, stress is not about working hours, but about the fact that their work does not make sense to them".

"Here, voluntary work can help fulfill the need for meaningful and exciting work in a period when you have to prioritize finances and safety in your daily work", explains Morten Esmann.

“A flourishing mental health”

The science is quite clear when it comes to the positive effects of volunteering, and in 2018 it was also confirmed in a large study among 14,000 Scandinavians.

According to the study, if you volunteer at least once a week, you are twice as likely to have the best possible mental health, compared to if you don't volunteer at all (defined in the study as "flourishing mental health").

However, a frequent concern of this type of study is whether they actually show that voluntary work is healthy. Or is the explanation really that people who start volunteering are already healthier and more resourceful than the average population?

"I always get that question", observes Ziggi Santini.

He is a Ph.D. in mental health, is a researcher at the State's Institute for Public Health at the University of Southern Denmark and is behind the study of the 14,000 Danes, Swedes, Norwegians and Finns.

He calls it a "chicken or egg" discussion, where it is almost impossible to say which comes first. What is most likely, however, is that there is a connection between good mental health and volunteering.

"You can compare it to playing sports, which we know promotes mental health. Resourceful people start playing sports more often, and then they get an improved mental health, which makes them even more likely to stick to playing sports", he explains.

A natural experiment

However, there are also studies that indicate that volunteer work has a real effect.

In 1990, the conditions for a natural experiment in voluntarism arose with the reunification of East and West Germany.

In East Germany, voluntary work had often been linked to sports clubs with links to national companies. But with reunification, many of the companies disappeared, and thus the proportion of East Germans who often worked voluntarily fell from 18 to 10 percent in 2 years.

The effect was documented in a comprehensive and annually recurring survey , which among other things investigates the degree of volunteerism and satisfaction among Germans.

The East Germans who were barred from volunteering experienced a greater dip in satisfaction than those who could continue – an effect that was independent of economic conditions, the number of social relations and attitudes towards the new democratic form of government in East Germany.

Volunteering can fulfill several needs

If you want to get closer to what makes volunteering healthy, there are three factors that, according to Ziggi Santini, are particularly worth highlighting.

  1. It is meaningful
  2. It is developing
  3. It's social

Some people experience all of the factors in their volunteer work, but it may also be sufficient to experience just one or two.

"There are people in our society who feel that they have no skills and that they cannot contribute anything to society. They can gain much more quality of life by feeling that they are contributing through voluntary work. Others have a lot of skills, but don't have a large network or community. They can get that through voluntary work", says Ziggi Santini.

He is associated with the information campaign ABC for Mental Health , which aims to educate Danes in what they can do themselves to strengthen their mental health.

The campaign originally originated in Australia, where ABC stands for Act, Belong, Commit.

Within that framework, there are many different things you can do to improve your mental health. You can play badminton at the local club, read a book, go to evening classes or volunteer.

Therefore, the motivation to do voluntary work can also be very different from person to person.

"The most important thing is that it feels meaningful. For some, it's about doing something altruistic and helping others. For others, the meaningful thing can be that you deal with your passion - for example by teaching a subject you are passionate about".

But the motivation for doing voluntary work can also be more selfish - for example, that it looks good on one's CV.

"If you have a self-narrative about being ambitious and setting yourself a goal, it also helps to strengthen mental health", explains Ziggi Santini and elaborates.

"Everyone's life situations are different. We often want to find one thing and say; "here is the recipe for a good life". But in reality, we can only say that there is a connection between voluntary work and mental health, and then you have to feel for yourself whether a certain activity has a positive effect for you".

Our hobbies are the first thing we cut

According to Ziggi Santini, it is not possible to say who has the greatest effect of volunteering, but it will probably be those with the worst mental health. There is a limit to how good you can get, and if you already have a meaningful job and good social relationships, you are probably reaching the limit of your potential.

But if you want to maintain your mental well-being, meaningful communities are important, whether it's a sports club, voluntary work or pursuing your interests with friends, explains Ziggi Santini.

"When we get pressured or stressed, these are often the things that we let go of first, and then we lose a social support network and risk ending up isolated with our work", he explains and continues:

"We must remember that leisure activities make life worth living. There are also other things besides work and family that are important in this life”.