Social Indicators Research

, Volume 97, Issue 2, pp 157–176 | Cite as

Happy to Help? Exploring the Factors Associated with Variations in Rates of Volunteering Across Europe

  • Anke C. PlagnolEmail author
  • Felicia A. Huppert


The frequency of formal volunteering varies widely across European countries, and rates of formal volunteering are especially low among Eastern European countries. Why are there such large differences in volunteering rates when it is known that volunteering is beneficial for well-being? Using data from the latest round of the European Social Survey, we test three hypotheses to explain these cross-national differences in volunteering. We ask whether people in countries with low frequencies of volunteering spend more of their time on informal volunteering activities; whether they differ on socio-demographic variables which are known to be linked to volunteering rates; or whether they show less well-being benefit from formal volunteering. Contrary to the first hypothesis, we find a positive correlation between formal and informal volunteering. We further conclude that national differences in rates of volunteering cannot be fully explained by differences in the social, psychological or cultural factors associated with volunteering nor the outcome of volunteering. It is likely that contextual factors, such as a country’s historical background or institutions, determine levels of volunteering to a large extent.


Volunteering European social survey Subjective well-being Hedonic measures Eudaimonic measures 


  1. Anheier, H. K., & Salamon, L. M. (1999). Volunteering in cross-national perspective: Initial comparisons. Law and Contemporary Problems, 62, 43–46. Amateurs in Public Service: Volunteering, Service-Learning, and Community Service.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Argyle, M. (1999). Causes and correlates of happiness. In D. Kahneman, E. Diener, & N. Schwarz (Eds.), Well-being: The foundations of hedonic psychology (pp. 365–367). New York: Russell Sage Foundation.Google Scholar
  3. Brickman, P., Coates, D., & Janoff-Bullman, R. (1978). Lottery winners and accident victims: Is happiness relative. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 36(8), 917–927. doi: 10.1037/0022-3514.36.8.917.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Davidov, E., Schmidt, P., & Schwartz, S. H. (2008). Bringing values back in: The adequacy of the European social survey to measure values in 20 countries. Public Opinion Quarterly, 72(3), 420–445. doi: 10.1093/poq/nfn035.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Diener, E., Suh, E., Lucas, R., & Smith, H. (1999). Subjective well-being: Three decades of progress. Psychological Bulletin, 125(2), 276–303. doi: 10.1037/0033-2909.125.2.276.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Dolan, P., Peasgood, T., & White, M. (2008). Do we really know what makes us happy? A review of the economic literature on the factors associated with subjective well-being. Journal of Economic Psychology, 29, 94–122. doi: 10.1016/j.joep.2007.09.001.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Donovan, N., Halpern, D., & Sargeant, R. (2002). Life satisfaction: The state of knowledge and implications for government. Strategy Unit of the British Government.Google Scholar
  8. Easterlin, R. A. (1995). Will raising the income of all increase the happiness of all? Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 27(1), 35–47. doi: 10.1016/0167-2681(95)00003-B.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Easterlin, R. A. (2001). Income and happiness: Towards a unified theory. Economic Journal, 111(473), 465–484. doi: 10.1111/1468-0297.00646.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Easterlin, R. A. (2008). Lost in transition: Life satisfaction on the road to capitalism IZA Discussion Paper No. 3409, Scholar
  11. Frey, B. S., & Stutzer, A. (2002). Happiness and economics. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  12. Greenfield, E. A., & Marks, N. F. (2004). Formal volunteering as a protective factor for older adults’ psychological well-being. Journal of Gerontology: Social Sciences, 59B(5), S258–S264.Google Scholar
  13. Helliwell, J. F., & Putnam, R. D. (2004). The social context of well-being. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. B, 359, 1435–1446. doi: 10.1098/rstb.2004.1522.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Huppert, F. A., Marks, N., Clark, A., Siegrist, J., Stutzer, A., Vittersø, J., et al. (2009). Measuring well-being across Europe: Description of the ESS well-being module and preliminary findings. Social Indicators Research, 91(3), 301–315. doi: 10.1007/s11205-008-9346-0.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Huppert, F. A., & Whittington, J. E. (2003). Evidence for the independence of positive and negative well-being: Implications for quality of life assessment. British Journal of Health Psychology, 8, 107–122. doi: 10.1348/135910703762879246.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Jowell, R., & The Central Coordinating Team. (2007). European social survey 2006/2007: Technical report. London: Centre for Comparative Social Surveys, City Universityo.Google Scholar
  17. Kuti, E. (2004). Civic service in Eastern Europe and Central Asia: From mandatory public work toward civic service. Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, 33(4), 79S–97S. doi: 10.1177/0899764004269740.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Layard, R. (2005). Happiness: Lessons from a new science. London: Penguin.Google Scholar
  19. Li, Y., & Ferraro, K. F. (2005). Volunteering and depression in later life: Social benefit or selection processes? Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 46(1), 68–84.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Lucas, R. E., Clark, A. E., Georgellis, Y., & Diener, E. (2003). Reexamining adaptation and the set point model of happiness: Reactions to changes in marital status. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84(3), 527–539. doi: 10.1037/0022-3514.84.3.527.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Luoh, M.-C., & Herzog, A. R. (2002). Individual consequences of volunteer and paid work in old age: Health and mortality. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 43(4), 490–509. doi: 10.2307/3090239.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Meier, S., & Stutzer, A. (2008). Is volunteering rewarding in itself? Economica, 75(297), 39–59.Google Scholar
  23. Morrow-Howell, N., Hinterlong, J., Rozario, P. A., & Tang, F. (2003). Effects of volunteering on the well-being of older adults. Journals of Gerontology: Social Sciences, 58B(3), S137–S145.Google Scholar
  24. Musick, M. A., & Wilson, J. (2003). Volunteering and depression: The role of psychological and social resources in different age groups. Social Science and Medicine, 56, 259–269. doi: 10.1016/S0277-9536(02)00025-4.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Musick, M. A., Wilson, J., & Bynum, W. B., Jr. (2000). Race and formal volunteering: The differential effects of class and religion. Social Forces, 78(4), 1539–1570. doi: 10.2307/3006184.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Myers, D. G. (2000). The funds, friends, and faith of happy people. The American Psychologist, 55, 56–67.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Parboteeah, K. P., Cullen, J. B., & Lim, L. (2004). Formal volunteering: A cross-national test. Journal of World Business, 39, 431–441. doi: 10.1016/j.jwb.2004.08.007.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Piliavin, J. A. (2003). Doing well by doing good: Benefits for the benefactor. In C. L. M. Keyes & J. Haidt (Eds.), Flourishing: Positive psychology and the life well-lived (pp. 227–247). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Pinquart, M., & Sörensen, S. (2001). Influences on loneliness in older adults: A meta-analysis. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 23(4), 245–266.Google Scholar
  30. Prouteau, L., & Wolff, F.-C. (2008). On the relational motive for volunteer work. Journal of Economic Psychology, 29(3), 314–335. doi: 10.1016/j.joep.2007.08.001.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Radloff, L. S. (1977). The CES-D scale: A self-report depression scale for research in the general population. Applied Psychological Measurement, 1(3), 385–401. doi: 10.1177/014662167700100306.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Ruiter, S., & De Graaf, N. D. (2006). National context, religiosity, and volunteering: Results from 53 countries. American Sociological Review, 71, 191–210.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2001). On happiness and human potentials: A review of research on hedonic and eudaimonic well-being. Annual Review of Psychology, 52, 141–166. doi: 10.1146/annurev.psych.52.1.141.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Schwartz, S. H. (1992). Universals in the content and structure of values: Theory and empirical tests in 20 countries. In M. Zanna (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 25, pp. 1–65). New York: Academic Press.Google Scholar
  35. Schwartz, S. H. (1994). Are there universal aspects in the content and structure of values? The Journal of Social Issues, 50(4), 19–45.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Schwartz, S. H. (2004). Basic human values: Their content and structure across countries. In A. Tamayo & J. Porto (Eds.), Valores e trabalho. Brasilia: Editora Universidade de Brasilia.Google Scholar
  37. Schwartz, S. H. (2007). Draft users manual: Proper use of the schwarz value survey (Publication., from compiled by Romie F. Littrell. Auckland, New Zealand: Centre for Cross Cultural Comparisons.
  38. Smith, H. (1976). The Russians. London: Sphere Books.Google Scholar
  39. Thoits, P. A., & Hewitt, L. N. (2001). Volunteer work and well-being. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 42(2), 115–131. doi: 10.2307/3090173.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Van Willigen, M. (2000). Differential benefits of volunteering across the life course. Journal of Gerontology: Social Sciences, 55B(5), S308–S318.Google Scholar
  41. Wallace, C., & Pichler, F. (2009). More participation, happier society? A comparative study of civil society and the quality of life. Social Indicators Research, (in press).Google Scholar
  42. Wheeler, J. A., Gorey, K. M., & Greenblatt, B. (1998). The beneficial effects of volunteering for older volunteers and the people they serve: A meta-analysis. International Journal of Aging & Human Development, 47(1).Google Scholar
  43. Wilson, J. (2000). Volunteering. Annual Review of Sociology, 26, 215–240. doi: 10.1146/annurev.soc.26.1.215.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Wilson, J., & Musick, M. (1999). The Effects of Volunteering on the Volunteer. Law and Contemporary Problems, 62(No. 4, Amateurs in Public Service: Volunteering, Service-Learning, and Community Service), 141–168.Google Scholar
  45. Zimmermann, A. C., & Easterlin, R. A. (2006). Happily ever after? Cohabitation, marriage, divorce, and happiness in Germany. Population and Development Review, 32(3), 511–528. doi: 10.1111/j.1728-4457.2006.00135.x.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Faculty of Politics, Psychology, Sociology and International StudiesUniversity of CambridgeCambridgeUK
  2. 2.Department of Psychiatry and Director of the Well-being InstituteUniversity of CambridgeCambridgeUK

Personalised recommendations