Volunteering: The Science of (no cost) Lasting Happiness

By Moshe Hecht

If you already experience a constant sense of contentment, elation, or never-ending bliss no matter what life throws your way, stop reading now.

But, if you’re like me (and just a few others), who struggle to find lasting joy and meaning, then grab some popcorn and twizzlers because this article is meant for you! That’s right – I’m here to tell you that there is a surefire, scientifically-proven path towards your desired goal of a joyful existence and it’s not as out of reach as you might imagine.

In a past article entitled “Giving: The Science of Lasting Happiness,” I talked about how giving to charity, based on empirical research, is the key to lasting happiness. It has become apparent, however, that the door to happiness takes several keys, including one that involves a grand total of zero cents. You heard me. Zip. Zilch. Nada. The magical secret?


I’m so confident about this, in fact, that if by the end of this article, you aren’t 110% convinced that volunteering has the power to bring true joy into your life, I will personally volunteer 100 hours to your favorite nonprofit. And I’ll be happy to do it. 

Here we go. 

A post on Harvard Medical School’s blog reveals that volunteering makes people feel more “socially connected,” whether it be with the people you’re volunteering with or for. This feeling of enhanced interconnectivity and belonging gives people who volunteer regularly the ability to better “ward off loneliness and depression.” As a special bonus, volunteering is also linked to significantly lower blood pressure. Lower blood pressure! Just writing this makes me want to go out and volunteer ASAP. 

Haven’t had your fill of data yet? Are you more of a Yale kind of person, or you just need more numbers? Well, it’s your lucky day – I’ve got a “Family Size” pack of facts with your name on it. You’re welcome.

A study by the Germany-based Institute for the Study of Labor was actually able to quantify how much happier volunteers were than non-volunteers. Over a period of four years and 22,000 separate interviews, researchers were able to definitively link volunteering to an increase in overall life satisfaction. Volunteering alone allowed individuals – on a scale from 1-10 – to, on average, jump up from a 6 to a 7. This boost was also noticeable in people who volunteered just one time a month, proving that helping others just a few hours a month truly pays dividends. 

Not convinced yet? Worried that volunteering only works for Europeans and need evidence that Americans too can live happier more meaningful lives through volunteering? Or are you unsure you’ll see benefits, if you volunteer with the goal to be happy?

Researchers from City University of Hong Kong thought so too. That’s why they did a study in Texas with over one thousand red-white-and-blue Texans, controlling for two different kinds of volunteering: self-oriented and other-oriented. Rather intuitively, those terms mean volunteering that was engaged in solely to benefit the self (greater networking, finding oneself, or increasing career prospects) and volunteering that was done out of altruism, respectively. They too found a link between volunteering and happiness, a connection that was present even if people volunteered just to pad their resumes.  

I could sit here all day and rattle through the dozens of studies that harp on that point, but luckily, I don’t have to. That’s because a group of Canadian and American experts at the Rotman Research Institute already did it for me. They analyzed 73 studies conducted on volunteering and happiness over the past 45 years and found they all agreed on the same things: volunteering makes you happier and even makes you live longer.

If you skipped all the research jargon and landed at this paragraph, I get it. But let me leave you with this. We live in such connected times; yet, most of us suffer from lack of real connection. This is increasingly true for millennials and Gen Z. The more digitally connected we are, the more we hunger for face to face connection. Volunteering gives us that. The chance to come together with friends, colleagues, and community members and make a meaningful difference. As quoted in this article by HuffPost, the Millennial Impact Report shared, “77% of millennials said they’re more likely to volunteer when they can use their specific skills or expertise to benefit a cause.” The same number of people “preferred to perform cause work with groups of fellow employees as opposed to doing independent service projects.”

No matter how advanced or hyper-connected our lives, we will always crave something deeper. Something with meaning. Something that allows us to tap into what we’re good at to achieve a real difference in the world. 

The key here is to know your people, and the best way to utilize their individual and collective skill sets to incentivize volunteerism in your own community. To give them the chance to connect. Face to face. For a project that matters. 

Step aside, laughter. Volunteerism is the new best medicine.

Moshe Hecht is a philanthropy futurist, public speaker and chief innovation officer of Charidy, a crowdfunding platform and consulting company that has helped 4000 organizations raise over a quarter billion dollars. His articles have been published in publications such as Forbes, Nonprofit Quarterly and eJewishPhilanthropy. @moshehecht @wearecharidy#tzedakaspresent

This piece is the latest addition to Tzedaka’s Present: A column on current and future giving trends and oppurtunities.