The role of education and mental well-being in volunteering explored

It is known that an individual's level of education — including years of schooling or completed degrees — is one of the strongest predictors of whether he or she will volunteer in American communities. A Yale study has uncovered for the first time that mental well-being positively shapes the association between education and whether someone volunteers.

The results of the study, taken from a national sample of middle-aged American adults, were published online in the journal Society and Mental Health.

“These findings are important because they show that higher education without adequate mental health may offer a less robust contribution to the public good,” says Matthew A. Andersson, postdoctoral associate at the Center for Research on Inequalities and the Life Course in Yale’s Department of Sociology. “These findings give a striking illustration of how human capital and emotional resources may intersect in important ways to produce American adults’ contribution to their communities.”

Andersson and his co-author, Jennifer Glanville, associate professor of sociology at the University of Iowa, examined individuals’ state of mental well-being in relation to symptoms of distress or sadness, or positive indicators such as happiness, satisfaction, and purpose in life. The researchers studied the link between volunteering and mental well-being by observing changes in voluntary activity between 1995 and 2005.

Because volunteer work helps ensure that communities and nations thrive, scholars across disciplines seek to better understand why people volunteer or not, notes Andersson.

“The degree to which adult mental well-being may shape the contribution of education to volunteering is timely to assess in light of evidence that psychological distress may have increased during recent decades among American adults,” says Andersson. “While clearly an important public health issue in its own right, if this recent increase in distress has dampened the overall effect of education on volunteering and other forms of civic engagement, its social impact is all the more consequential.”

The results of the study were surprising, says Andersson. “I thought that since education is such a strong predictor of volunteering in the first place, that people could sustain pretty considerable mental health problems and their education would still move them into volunteering roles, but it really seemed that even with mild or moderate decreases in positive emotion or purpose in life, that education no longer had a link at all with volunteering.”