volunteer-652383_960_720Students say volunteering gives them a “sense of purpose in life.”

A recent study shows that volunteerism promotes a sense of purpose in life, preferably through intrinsic rather than extrinsic motivations, however, either will do the job.

Morris A. Okun and Ga Young Kim, in association with Arizona State University, report a correlation between “prosocial motivation” and the frequency in which young adults volunteer. Furthermore, research by the affiliates of ASU’s Department of Psychology suggests that this correlation reflects how to encourage individuals towards volunteering in a larger capacity and, as a result, creating a greater sense of satisfaction.

Prosocial motivation is explained as simply, intrinsic versus extrinsic incentives, or as it is in this study, “pleasure based prosocial motivation” versus “pressure based prosocial motivation.” Volunteering as a way of “obtaining pleasure from helping others” would be considered an intrinsic incentive. Conversely, volunteering as a means of “fulfillment of obligation”, such as accumulating a certain number of hours, would be an example of extrinsic incentive.

According to the report by Okun and Kim, “the relation between volunteering and life satisfaction was stronger among people who placed a higher, as opposed to lower, priority on intrinsic than extrinsic life goals.” Doing good for its own sake seems to be the premier factor that leads to a greater satisfaction in life, although, some sense of gratification can be achieved by accruing hours.

Surprisingly, the very act of pursuing extrinsic motivations may cause volunteers to increase the frequency in which they volunteer, therefore leading to an increased sense of purpose. It seems that once the opportunity to volunteer has been accepted, by way of either motivating factor, fulfillment and satisfaction naturally follow.

However, when both pleasure based and pressure based motivations are low, “then [frequency of volunteering] may be unrelated to purpose in life because, in the absence of either type of prosocial motivation, little meaning may be culled from engaging in volunteering.” The trick seems to be finding an initial motivation to build upon.

These findings are the result of data acquired by online questionnaires provided to students, using Qualtrics, and completed during the fall semester of 2014. In total, 576 college students, ranging in ages from 18 to 22 years old, were asked questions such as, “During the past 12 months, how often did you engage in organizational volunteering?” Incidentally, the average frequency was about “3–5 times in the past 12 months” for this group.

How can this information be used to encourage individuals into greater volunteerism involvement? Okun and Kim hypothesize that by understanding how motivation relates to the frequency of volunteering and purpose in life they “potentially can determine who will benefit the most from volunteering and design motivation-related interventions.” Coordinators can use this information to identify volunteers that lack motivation and then customize messages of encouragement based on either of the two prosocial motivating factors.

Ultimately, the study reflects that “volunteering is not a sufficient condition for bolstering well-being; it is the motive underlying the action that matters” It is clear that the individuals that have the most success, as well as gain the most satisfaction, are the ones that serve because it feels good to serve. It is also evident that those that volunteer based on achieving accolades may find a sense of fulfillment to a slightly lesser degree. However, individuals that have no prosocial motivation at all will likely gain little sense of purpose in life through volunteerism.

If you’d like to know more about volunteerism in our area, click “Follow.” Each week a local philanthropist will be spotlighted and discuss what motivates them to do what they do.