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This question has intrigued me for a long time, ever since I experienced it first hand (and continue to do so). Some feel a compulsion to 'step up' and lend a hand to someone in need. An example, after spending a day cleaning up a neighbour's flood ravaged business and then some time helping at an evacuation centre, I came home sore, bruised, bleeding, battered, utterly exhausted - but, I felt great - physically, I was a mess, but psychologically, I felt incredible.

What is/are bases for the psychological benefits often felt by volunteers?

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2 Answers

up vote 4 down vote accepted

Individual Motives

In addition to purely altruistic motivs for volunteering, there is some evidence it can occur for very different, more selfish reasons. Clary et al. (1998) developed a functionalist theory of volunteering and identified six different motives:

  • expression of humanitarian values
  • gaining knowledge
  • personal growth
  • social integration
  • career benefits
  • protecting the ego from negative self evaluation and reducing guilt of being more fortunate than others

Simon et al. (2000) found additional evidence to support the role of gaining knowledge as a motive.

Social Motives

All of the above were individual motives for helping behaviour. Going back to altruism as a predictor, it might be useful to also consider a group level perspective. Helping behaviour may have to do with self-categorization as group member. A very prominent approach from social-psychology is the Empathy-Altruism-Hypothesis by Daniel Batson et al. (1991). As you might expect, it states that empathy with someone is a good predictor of helping behaviour. However, there are different reasons for experiencing empathy. Stürmer et al. (2005; see also Simon et al., 2000) found in a study with AIDS volunteers, that empathy was a stronger predictor of helping behaviour when the recipient was an in-group member. On the other hand, when the recipient was an outgroup member, personal attraction was a stronger predictor. So volunteering might also have to do with the social identity of a person.

References:

Batson, C. D. (1991). The altruism question: Toward a social-psychological answer. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.
Clary, E. G., Snyder, M., Ridge, R. D., Copeland, J., Stukas, A. A., Haugen, J., & Miene, P. (1998). Understanding and assessing the motivations of volunteers: a functional approach. Journal of personality and social psychology, 74(6), 1516. PDF
Simon, B., Sturmer, S., & Steffens, K. (2000). Helping Individuals or Group Members? The Role of Individual and Collective Identification in AIDS Volunteerism. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 26(4), 497–506. doi:10.1177/0146167200266008 PDF
Stürmer, S., Snyder, M., & Omoto, A. M. (2005). Prosocial Emotions and Helping: The Moderating Role of Group Membership. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 88(3), 532–546. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.88.3.532

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@Skippy Thanks. Note, that volunteering does not have to be altruistic. I edited my post to emphasize this. –  Jens Kouros Aug 20 '13 at 8:40
    
@JensKouros very nicely done, exactly what I was after and more, I appreciate both the individual and social motivations. –  user3554 Aug 24 '13 at 9:31
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Some of the "pay-offs" of altruism, but within the more extreme circumstance of risking one's life to save another are address in this answer.

In my opinion, volunteer work fulfills a person's needs to be useful, it also places a person in a position of superiority, as they are bestowing their "gifts" upon a "lesser" person in need. There is evidence that charitable work releases chemicals akin to pleasure in the brain. [Dan Schulman]

I cite Ferguson, Eamonn; Farrell, Kathleen; Lawrence, Claire :

The benevolence hypothesis is supported, suggesting that blood donor motivation is partly selfish.

Citing from the moral maze.

"Even in human societies we can still trace many behaviours seemingly carried out for the benefit of the group back to benefits for the individual," Stanford explains.

In the study Altruism Costs - the Cheap Signal from Amygdala, it was demonstrated that there a neurological changes within the brain when contemplating making donations.

neural processing of the cost-benefit difference. The presentation of a charitable donation goal evoked an insula activity that predicted the later decision to donate.../... Our findings imply that the emotional system has an important role in real decision making as it signals what kind of immediate cost and reward an outcome is associated with.

So in summary, I believe the pay-off is a feeling of well-being, that is in accord with supporting the individual's self-esteem and some evolutionary theories of our instincts as a species.

The Biology of Benevolence
Humans may be hardwired to cooperate. The choice to cooperate stimulates pleasure centers in the brain.
By Dan Schulman,
published on November 01, 2002 - last reviewed on May 02, 2006

Blood donation is an act of benevolence rather than altruism.
Ferguson, Eamonn; Farrell, Kathleen; Lawrence, Claire
Health Psychology, Vol 27(3), May 2008, 327-336

Altruism Costs - the Cheap Signal from Amygdala.
Gospic K, Sundberg M, Maeder J, Fransson P, Petrovic P, Isacsson G, Karlström A, Ingvar M.

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