Happiness and doing good things

Happiness and doing good things

Middle America volunteers most, survey finds

By Janet Kornblum, USA TODAY

If you live in Minneapolis, Salt Lake City or Austin, you’re more likely to volunteer in your community than if you live in other metro areas, says a report out today by the Corporation for National and Community Service.

It’s not that people in those cities are necessarily kinder or gentler. They just have the right circumstances for volunteering: They feel connected to their communities, have more education, own their own homes, spend less time commuting and have more opportunities to give back, the report says.

For instance, 70% of Minneapolis-area families own their own homes. It had the highest overall volunteer rate at 40.5%, says the report. By contrast, Honolulu, where only 49% own homes, ranked 42nd with a 23.3% rate of volunteering.

Minneapolis also has a history of civic engagement, says Jeremy Hanson, spokesman for Mayor R.T. Rybak. “Everyone is connected to an arts or non-profit cause that they care about, so they roll up their sleeves and get to work.”

Residents of cities where people spend a lot of time commuting or live in apartments, by contrast, tend to feel less connected to their communities, so they don’t volunteer as much. Cities that ranked lowest are New York, Miami and Las Vegas.

Residents of rural areas volunteer more than urban areas, the report says.

While the agency has done other reports on volunteer rates, this is the first time it has ranked cities, says Robert Grimm, director of research and policy development.

“We hope that just as metro areas care about their crime rates, they’ll see levels of volunteering as another important community benchmark,” Grimm says.

Communities may not be able to do anything right away to improve such structural impediments as education levels or homeownership rates, Grimm says, but they can come up with creative solutions such as urging businesses to allow more telecommuting and helping organizations reach out in new ways – for instance, online.

Why should communities care where they rank?

“There is a growing amount of research that has been demonstrating that volunteering is not something that’s just nice to do in the community,” Grimm says.

Volunteers contribute about 8.2 billion hours – worth about $152 billion a year – and also provide instrumental help to schools and mentoring programs, he says.

If that’s not enough reason to go out and do good, volunteering is actually good for you, says Stephen Post, a bioethics professor at Case Western Reserve University’s School of Medicine in Cleveland.

“It’s good to be good,” says Post, author of Why Good Things Happen to Good People. “There are clear psychological and health benefits,” to volunteering,” he says. “When people are self-preoccupied, they’re also preoccupied with the problems of the self. When people volunteer in the community, there is a lifting of that anxiety, and they tend to be happier.”

With baby boomers rapidly aging, volunteering will become even more important. “One would hope that a great many, instead of simply going off to Sun City for more martinis at noon – that they would actually find a deep purpose in helping others,” Post says.

The corporation, an independent federal agency which also runs AmeriCorps, based the report on phone and in-person interviews with 180,000 households conducted by the Census Bureau each September from 2004 to 2006.