A volunteer fills a box with food at the Bread for the City food pantry in Washington, D.C. REUTERS/Jim Young

A new study shows a big difference between those who serve their communities and those who don't. 

People who volunteer to serve their communities are significantly happier than those who do not, according to a Gallup analysis released this week.

The study compared the average self-reported well-being scores of people who said that they had received recognition for community service to those who said they had not. Gallup found that those who said they received recognition for their service had an average Well-Being Index score of 70.0 out of 100. Those who did not had an average score of 58.5. This relationship between happiness and community service held even when Gallup controlled for the effects of income and age, two factors that have been found to be closely related to higher levels of community well-being.  

The findings are based on telephone surveys of more than 100,000 Americans, which asked questions about various dimensions of social, economic, and community happiness. 

Many more U.S. adults—about two-third of respondents—indicated that they had not received recognition for community service, compared to one in five adults who said they did. 

The overall pattern cut across income and age group. 

Well-being is associated with income, so it is not surprising that more affluent Americans reported higher levels of happiness overall. But when it came to community service, the patterns were similar for all income levels. Among those who said they received recognition for community service, affluent Americans reported well-being scores of 71.3, compared to 69.9 for those making $36,0000-$65,000 and 67.2 for those making less than $36,000. The biggest differences, interestingly enough, showed up in the well-being scores for Americans who did not report receiving recognition for community service. Gallup researchers found the well-being scores for the affluent among that group averaged 62.6, compared to 58.7 for middle income and just 52.4 for lower income Americans.

The pattern was fairly similar when it came to age. Older Americans (65 and above) who reported engaging in community service had the highest levels of well-being. This is also not surprising, since older people in general have higher levels of happiness overall. But, interestingly, younger Americans ages 18 to 29 who reported community service recognition had the second highest levels of overall well-being (70.3), beating both those in the 30 to 45 and 46 to 64 age groups, who reported slightly lower levels.

The Gallup analysis also found a connection between community service and key indicators of emotional health, such as stress and worry (see the chart below). A quarter of those who reported engaging in community service and being recognized for it reported experiencing worry, compared to 32 percent among those who had not been recognized for their service. And just over a third (34 percent) who said they engaged in community service said they experienced stress, compared to 42 percent among those who did not.

In the influential Bowling Alone, Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam pointed to the decline in volunteerism as part and parcel of a more general decline in social capital in America. This Gallup study suggests that communities would be wise to do more to promote opportunities for residents to volunteer and engage in community service. Businesses can help, too, by allowing their workers time to engage in volunteer activities. My own research found one of the most valuable job attributes to creative class workers is the ability to set aside time to engage in volunteer activities and community service.

That said, the nature of the connection between community service and happiness remains unclear. It stands to reason that people who have more time to volunteer and more control over how they use their time would be happier. As the Gallup study notes, "It is possible that those who already have higher well-being might be more likely to volunteer in their communities."

About the Author

Richard Florida
Richard Florida

Richard Florida is a co-founder and editor at large of CityLab and a senior editor at The Atlantic. He is the director of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto and Global Research Professor at New York University.

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