Looking For Happiness (Part 4)

Written by: Dr. S. M. Kazem Mesbah Moosavi

Published on: September 18th, 2020

Click here for Part 1 | 2 | 3

The Ingredients of happiness

As we learned in the previous articles, happiness, according to modern psychology, is more subjective than objective, and currently it is evaluated using the subjective well being (SWB) theory. Psychologists analyze the elements that constitute happiness and mention two categories of ingredients: moderate and strong. Moderate ingredients of happiness include religiosity, health, social activity and volunteering.

The latter is the topic of the current article. First, various theories of psychologists on the relationship between volunteering and happiness, physical and spiritual health as well as motives for volunteering will be reviewed, followed by a discussion on the similarity between Islam and the psychology of happiness. The purpose is to provide information on ways to attain elements of happiness and to increase SWB. The methodology of research includes the application of scientific data based on principles of psychology.


Social Activity and Volunteering

Humans are generally social beings that are born into families, grow in societies, establish their material needs on mutual relationships, and in general need relationships and interaction with others, both emotionally and spiritually. All of us would like to have interaction with others; we want to like others and be liked by them; we enjoy encounters, like to go to picnics or watch movies with others. Relationships and interaction with others is generally a significant and fundamental need in life, such that humans would not feel satisfied if they had the best material goods but were devoid of interacting with society. Therefore, the more humans are in humanistic and emotional exchange, the more positive outlook they will have towards themselves and their life.

Exchange and interaction with society fall into two categories:

1) Exchange based on mandatory agreements dependent on economic contracts such as teaching in schools, working in administration, banks or hospitals on the basis of receiving wages. In which cases, the purpose of working is to receive income.

2) Performing all these tasks without feeling any obligation to do so. The second category of social activities is known as volunteer activities in psychological terms and as charity in social and religious terms.

In the latest research done at the University of Zurich in 2004 psychologists discovered a positive relationship between happiness and volunteering. An example is an article entitled “Is volunteering rewarding itself?” written by two distinguished psychologists at the University of Zurich. In this paper, Stephan Meier and Alois Stutzer try to prove that volunteering is one of the ingredients of happiness.

As an introduction, they refer to two opposite viewpoints of Greek philosophers on happiness. The opposite view defines happiness as selfish efforts and complete self-centeredness without concern for others. From this point of view, attaining happiness is only made possible by focusing on personal happiness and the attainment of personal and material benefits while avoiding volunteer activities. One should always be careful not to give time or money to others for free. Modern psychologists see themselves in need of statistics in order to confirm or critique a theory in their evaluation. As a result, psychologists look at the issue of happiness from a statistical point of view. According to Meier and Stutzer, it is entirely possible to measure happiness among people by a statistical study, and to evaluate the two old theories in light of modern studies (Meier and Stutzer, 2004). Here, the emphasis is placed on volunteer activities, which are the most important type of social activities. In the U.S., more than 50% of adults volunteer and their work is equivalent to 5 million full time jobs. In Europe, 32.1% of the population volunteers and their work is equivalent to 4.5 million full time jobs. Many charity organizations depend on the work of volunteers.

After stating the importance of volunteering in American and European societies, Meier and Stutzer examine the evidence on the relationship between volunteer work and satisfaction in life. In this regard, they use the results of socioeconomic research in Germany between 1987 and 1999. Research methodology includes surveying various people yearly, by asking two questions: 1) their satisfaction with different aspects of their lives, and 2) the number of volunteer activities in which they are involved. After studying the answers, the close relationship between happiness and volunteering becomes clearly apparent.

As a concrete example, Meier and Stutzer examined the condition of Germans during the time period after the demolition of East Germany with the destruction of the Berlin Wall, and before the union of Germany. After the demolition of East Germany, the German economic and social committee (GSOEP) started collecting information on volunteer activities that were still going on, but when the two Germanies united, there was a shock in the area of volunteer social services and as a result some people lost their volunteering opportunities. When psychologists surveyed 22,000 different people they found a direct correlation between volunteering and happiness. Those who had the chance to participate in volunteer social services were happier and their SWB was higher than others.

In addition, just as participation in volunteer and charity work contributed to feeling happy, the extent of happiness also increased the desire to do volunteer and charity work. In fact, the relationship between volunteering and happiness was a mutual relationship and each improved the other one. It may be noted that although the relationship between happiness and volunteering is apparent in all cases where statistical analysis is done, it is not clear whether volunteering causes happiness or happiness causes volunteering. However, it is certain that people who volunteer in charity work are in a better psychological condition and their SWB is higher than those who only think of themselves and avoid participation in charity works.

Different Analyses of Motives for Volunteering

According to Meier and Stutzer, there are two different interpretations for people’s motivations behind volunteering:

1) the reason that a group of people offer volunteer social services is that they enjoy helping others. Therefore, the reward for volunteers is based on intrinsic motivation, and they do not expect any material reward.

2) Helping society voluntarily is mainly based on extrinsic motivation for reward.

There are three theories that explain volunteering and charity work according to the first interpretation:

a) According to the distinguished psychologist, Argyle, volunteers take pleasure in helping others feel joy or reducing their pain. Therefore, the main reason for the satisfaction of volunteers is seeing the outcome of their sacrifice and cooperation with others (Argyle, 1999:365). For example, someone who works to eliminate inequality in society enjoys seeing people’s improved condition, or someone who helps social-religious community centers, feels happy that some people find inner peace and leave the vacuum of their loneliness.

b) Another theory is that volunteer activity, by itself brings happiness, regardless of the outcome. For example someone who works with firefighters as a volunteer, enjoys the activity per se. He feels happy to have the opportunity to be involved in work he is interested in (Dei & Ryan, 2000:235).

c) The third theory, which is to some extent similar to the previous theories states that helping others is joyful in its own merit. However, the difference between the second theory and this one is that it does not highlight interest in the type of volunteering and considers work that is not so pleasant for the person volunteering. This theory sees the reason for the joy felt by the volunteer as a reduction in feelings of guilt possible.

There are two theories that explain volunteering and charity work according to the second interpretation. That is, that participation in volunteer activities is based on extrinsic motivation:

a) Volunteering is a financial investment for the future, and the motivation for volunteers is to gain more financial rewards. When some people face financial hardships due to illness, childbirth, parenting or employment loss, their volunteer work provides an opportunity to rebuild and maintain their professional skills (Menchik & Weisbrod, 1987). Additionally, since volunteering is a prerequisite for some private jobs, volunteers are motivated by gaining better jobs and opportunities.

b) Volunteering is a type of social investment. Based on this theory, the motivation of volunteers is finding free social connections and acquaintance with new people in order to find appropriate job opportunities.

It may be noted that some people volunteer in order to network and find new friends while increasing their sense of belonging.

One cannot, however, say that their volunteering is based solely on material motivation, they should be considered among people who volunteer because of intrinsic motivation and without expectation for any reward.


A Few Points on Volunteering

A) As we learned in this paper, modern psychology believes that happiness is based on various elements, including social activities and volunteering, because people who are involved in volunteering are statistically happier and have a happier and calmer spirit compared to others. However, it is unclear whether volunteering is based on intrinsic or extrinsic motivation and which of the advantages associated with volunteering is the motivating factor in volunteer activities. According to some psychologists such as Meier and Stutzer, for many people, the advantages of volunteering is a combination of the aforementioned points and research has been unable to outline a particular type of advantage and benefit as a superior factor in creating happiness.

B) Based on research done in Ontario, Canada, a volunteer activity not only increases SWB, but also influences immune system. Adults who volunteer have a better immune system and a lower death rate. Volunteering will also help to lower blood pressure and decrease social isolation. Similar studies carried out at the University of Michigan confirm these findings and highlight the low rate of immature death among adult volunteers.

C) Another point that should be noted is that volunteer activities should be done long term, otherwise their effects will be limited.

D) Volunteering is most effective when the volunteer feels a sense of belonging to a social or religious community and therefore works with that feeling of belonging. A sense of belonging is not only effective in increasing personal spirit, but is also an important factor in decreasing the risk of depression. Some sociologists, like Durkheim also regard a sense of belonging as important in the prevention of suicide. According to them, individualism causes alienation and increases the destruction of social glue, leading to elevated rates of depression and suicide. Volunteering, thus, plays an effective role in quality of life and in improving SWB as well as in preventing depression and in some cases, even decreasing the rate of suicide.

E) Although this author completely agrees with psychologists about the definitive relationship between volunteer activities and happiness, he is not in agreement about their classification of personal motivations for volunteering. It seems to me that volunteers can have various motivations. Some are motivated based on intrinsic factors and others based on extrinsic factors, while others may be motivated by both intrinsic and extrinsic ones.


Agreement between Islamic Teachings and Psychology of Happiness

 Just as modern psychologists consider volunteer activities as one of the elements of happiness, and regard them as helping and loving oneself, Islam also sees volunteer activities and charitable acts as important elements of happiness. If modern psychology regards helping others as helping oneself, the Quran also clearly states: “If you are beneficent, you have helped yourself and if you have done bad, you have injured yourself.”

In Islam, while there is a great emphasis on volunteer and charitable acts, it is stressed that the advantages of beneficence and good deeds go back to the person who performs them. In Persian, the famous saying, “Whatever you do, you do onto yourself”, is rooted in our Islamic culture. In general, all instructions in Islam are based on the goal of benefiting oneself. This is true also in the most personal and individual issues such as prayers and fasting. In this regard, the Quran says: “those who do good deeds work to benefit themselves.” (Suras Fusilat:46, Jasiyeh: 15, Roum:44).

Islam in no way agrees with Alfred North Whitehead, the father of process philosophy and his student, H. Shorne, who regard acts of worship and spiritual activities as benefiting God and completing His essence. In addition, Islam is in complete disagreement with Cross Theology and its representatives such as Urgen Moltmman and Douglas John Hall, who see God as incomplete, weak, and poor, because an incomplete and needy God cannot be the source of universe. Islam sees God as absolutely free of any needs; therefore, human efforts go back to humans themselves. The Quran says: “whoever works, works for himself. God does not need any beings.” (Sura Ankabut:7).

Now, by considering the Islamic perspective on praying in general, and charity work in particular, we can see very well that the goal of all instructions in Islam is familiarizing humans with one of the most important ways to attain happiness.



As we saw in this discussion, social activities and volunteering are among moderate elements of happiness. Those who are involved in social and volunteer activities have a happier spirit and higher SWB than those who only think of themselves and avoid volunteering.4

Furthermore, volunteers have lower rates of depression, tend to have better physical health and are more robust in facing illness. Research has shown that in adults, volunteering causes an increased life span, preventing premature death to a great extent. Islam confirms this psychological view and encourages beneficence and good deeds without expectation of reward, leading a society of believers towards happiness. Interestingly, sayings of fourteen centuries ago state that, volunteer and charitable work stop misfortune and increase life span, a view that psychologists of happiness have recently come to believe.

The second moderate ingredient of happiness, according to modern psychology, is religiosity. It has been scientifically proven that those who have a heartfelt conviction and faith are happier in comparison to those who characterize themselves as non-religious. This is the topic we will cover in the next article.

Click here for Part 1 | 2 | 3


1) Wayne Weiten, Psychology: Themes and Variations, Thomson Learning Inc.,2004, (six edition),pp. 416-419. S. M. Kazem Mesbah Moosavi, “Psychology of Happiness,”, Hoda Magazine, Toronto, No. 1, August 2005.

2) Stephen Meier and Alois Stutzer. “Is Volunteering Rewarding Itself?”, Institute Metrical Research in Economic. University of Zurich, Working Paper No. 180, February 2004

3) Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, London: A.millar,1790 sixth edition (first published: 1759 ).

4) Daniel Kahneman, Ed Diener, and Norbert Schwarz (eds.), Well-Being: The Foundations of Hedonic Psychology (new York: The Russell Sage Foundation, 1999).

5) Hans Werner, Bierhoff, Prosocial Behaviour, Ruhr-University Bochum, First published 2002 by Psychology Press.

6) Vicki R. Fitzsimmons, “Socialization and Volunteer Work: The Role of Parents and College Volunteering”, Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, Vol. 15, No. 4, 57-66 (1986).

7) The international journal of volunteer administration vd. 24, No.2 Oct.2006, p.26

8) Musick , MA , AR tlerzog & Js House. “Volunteering and Mortality among Older Adults” in Journals of Gerontology Series, B: Psychological Sciences and Social sciences, vol. 54, 1999.

9) S. M. Kazem Mesbah Moosavi, “A Critical Analysis of Heart Shoren’s Process Philosophy”, 1997 (McGill University: submitted Paper).

10) Allan, George. “The Aims of Societies and the Aims of God.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 35, no. 2 (June 1967): 149-158.

11) “Perishable Goods.” The Review of Metaphysics 54, no. 1 (2000): 3-26.

12) “Whiteheadian Recollection.” The Journal of Speculative Philosophy 15, no.3 (2001): 214-227.

13) Douglas John Hall, Thinking the Faith, Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 1991. See also: S. M. Kazem Mesbah Moosavi, “A Critical Analysis of Douglas John Hall’s Contextual Theology” McGill University, Ph.D. Thesis.

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