Study: Volunteering is linked to reduced depression via increased social connectedness

Psychology researchers in Ireland have shed new light on why volunteering is associated with reduced depressive symptoms. Their study, published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, suggests that volunteering is linked to reduced depressive symptoms because of its association with social connectedness.

“Several research studies have reported associations between volunteering and better mental health, and this has even led to interventions designed to improve health by promoting volunteering,” said study author Ann-Marie Creaven of the University of Limerick.

“However, volunteering can be conceptualized as a type of social connectedness — it usually involves some form of social contact and/or provision of support to others in a community, and social connectedness is a well-known predictor of health outcomes. Volunteering studies rarely consider these wider social connections volunteers probably have, even though these are powerful predictors of health.”

“We were interested to know: is there really something special about volunteering? Or, might volunteers have better mental health because they are more socially connected, in general?”

The researchers examined data from 27,301 individuals from 15 countries who participated in the European Social Survey. Their results confirmed there was a negative correlation between volunteering and depressive symptoms. In other words, people who volunteered more tended to report fewer symptoms of depression.

However, the data indicated that social connectedness was a stronger predictor of depressive symptoms than volunteering.

“Our study, like many others, found that volunteering was associated with lower symptoms of depression. However, when we considered how socially connected volunteers were (and they tended to be highly socially connected), this link between volunteering and depression disappeared,” Creaven told PsyPost.

“This doesn’t mean that there is no value in volunteering – volunteering has value beyond the individual! But, in terms of mental health, our study found no evidence for something special about volunteering compared with social connectedness in general.”

The study — like all research — has limitations. Future research on the topic could benefit from longitudinal designs.

“Our study looked at volunteering and depression at one point in time,” Creaven explained. “Studies over multiple timepoints can help us determine which comes first: does volunteering lead to better social connectedness (e.g., more friendships, more social contact) or does social connectedness lead to more opportunities to volunteer? And, how do these factors go on to influence mental health? This can help us understand when and how volunteering might be truly effective in improving health and well-being.”

“It would also be helpful to collect detailed information on volunteering. Most studies measure ‘how many hours’ or ‘how often’ people volunteer, and we know less about the type of activities people are doing and the relationships they form through volunteering.”

“Even though there was no special advantage for volunteering in our study, it is probably easier for a person to take up volunteering than to change other aspects of their social connections such as having intimate friendships, or being married,” Creaven added.

“So, volunteering remains a more useful target for intervention that other aspects of social connectedness, we just need to consider each of these factors in the same research studies, to better understand how volunteering influences health.”

The study, “Social connectedness and depression: Is there added value in volunteering?“, was authored by Ann-Marie Creaven, Amy Healy, and Siobhan Howard.