Volunteering has a positive impact on the mental health of people aged over 40 but no effect on the mental well-being of young people, a study has found.
The results are based on work by researchers at the universities of Southampton and Birmingham, who have published their findings in an article called Association of Volunteering with Mental Well-being: A Lifecourse Analysis of a National Population-based Longitudinal Study in the UK in the journal BMJ Open.
The researchers based their conclusions on data collected by the British Household Panel Survey, which tracked a nationally representative sample of adults in 5,000 households between 1991 and 2008.
The BHPS questioned participants on a number of factors, including mental health and volunteering.
Volunteering questions for BHPS participants asked whether they did voluntary work once a week, once a month, several times a year, once a year or less, or never.
The university researchers’ analysis of the BHPS data found that while the relationship between volunteering and mental wellbeing varied over a person’s lifetime, it was most beneficial for people aged over 40.
But the study found that participation in volunteering did not affect younger people’s mental health in the same way.
"There is no clear evidence that volunteering was positively associated with mental health during early adulthood to mid-adulthood," the study says.
"Rather, the positive association began to become apparent after around 40 years and continued up to old age.
"Those who never volunteered seemed to have lower levels of mental well-being starting around midlife and continuing in old age compared to those involved in volunteering."
In the study, the researchers speculate that people might see volunteering as "another obligatory task to fulfil in order to be a good student, parent, worker and so forth", which could account for volunteering’s lack of effect on their mental health.