Volunteering for happiness

I love working in groups with different people, and I get a feeling of satisfaction when others are happy because of my deeds. Overall, being a volunteer teaches us the true meaning of life, and how we can lead a happy life”, says Chencho Dema, 22, who was selected as the Youth Volunteer of the Year in 2014. Last year, Chencho founded the “Helping Hand” student volunteer group in Trashiyangtse Institute for Zorig Chusum where she works as an ICT instructor.

Happiness is closely linked to volunteerism. According to the latest GNH Survey (2010) in Bhutan, people who volunteered reported higher personal happiness levels and stronger feeling of belonging to their community. Yet, there remains plenty of untapped potential to engage more people in meaningful and rewarding voluntary work.

Dechen Rabgyal, 25, President of the Youth Initiative in 2014, describes his motivation to volunteer: “Coming from the countryside, I know what it feels like to be deprived of a necessity. From picking a piece of paper a day to placing proper shelter for helpless, every effort is intended to make the world safer and healthier place to live. At the end of the day, you are building your own community.” 

Studies indicate that volunteers have lower levels of depression, increased life satisfaction, and live longer than non-volunteers. This enhanced well-being could be attributed to social bonds created by volunteering, increased interaction and engagement with other people.

Volunteerism in Bhutan

According to statistics, volunteering is prospering in Bhutan. In the “Global Giving Index 2014”, Bhutan ranks at ninth position out of 135 surveyed countries in volunteering: 43 per cent of Bhutanese respondents said that they had volunteered their time to an organization in the past month.

Bhutanese volunteers contribute visibly to community health and well-being. Volunteers tutor children from less advantaged backgrounds, do cleaning campaigns, fund-raise for monasteries, serve on boards of civil society organizations, organize culture and arts programs, and help others in informal ways by caring for the sick and elderly, or assisting neighbours with house construction.

Many public services rely on volunteers: hospitals and schools have international and Bhutanese volunteers, events benefit from volunteers managing crowds, and disaster management sector depends on the help of De-suups and other volunteers to fight forest fires.

Beyond service delivery, thousands of volunteers also advocate for better understanding of democracy or women’s and children’s rights. People work to prevent gender-based violence and support survivors of violence across Bhutan. In schools and colleges, youth peer educators raise awareness on sexual and reproductive health and rights. Young graduates travel to remote rural communities to conduct civic education sessions and initiate community social audits to increase awareness on corruption.

However, managing volunteers is not easy – nor is it free. According to a small survey conducted last spring in Bhutan, many organizations engaging volunteers lack human resources and have difficulties recruiting, training and retaining skilled volunteers beyond one-off events.

Yet, it is precisely the more long-term, well-planned volunteering that young people would most benefit from. Through volunteering, youth can build their skills and employability, develop empathy and attitudes of responsibility, sharing and respect to differences. Being able to participate in social and civic life is also an effective way to prevent anti-social behaviours.

Aum Chime P. Wangdi, Secretary General of Tarayana Foundation describes how many of her friends participated in the national service scheme in the 1980s, spending three to six months working in rural areas.

“They learnt more during that short period than they ever did in universities”, Aum Chime tells. “It’s a very safe and good way of transitioning from theory, what you think you know, to practice – and then realizing very early on that those sets of skills are only so good, you still need to have many other skills: people skills, management skills, time-management and your own coping systems.” 

Volunteerism is already strongly incorporated in many policies, including the 11th Plan or the National Youth Policy (2011) in Bhutan. However, more strategic support to volunteerism and its practical implementation is still needed on many levels. For example media can highlight both the problems in the local communities, and volunteer action as people-centred local solution to these issues.

Who would like to volunteer?

This question asked in a meeting, class room or informal gathering usually causes squirming and awkward silence. In Thimphu, young friends often tell me how they “had to volunteer” for a public event, meaning that their participation was not a voluntary choice at all. Being forced to “volunteer” blurs the line between mandatory community service and actual volunteering. To avoid this confusion, it is important to distinguish volunteering (khelang) from non-voluntary unpaid labor (woola) that is required in rural communities.

In general, volunteer activities that are pre-planned and decided by adults are less appealing for youth. “Young people are interested in doing things initiated on their own or by people of their own age group”, Tregxel Dorji, 24, member of Community-Based Scouting says. For him, volunteering is first and foremost a fun way to learn, meet friends after work, and relax – while trying to help others.

So, how to volunteer? If you’d like to volunteer: explore the opportunities offered by your school, civil society organizations, or public institutions. If you live in a place that has a health or youth centre, check if they need help with elderly patients or organizing youth activities and sports events. And if you see an issue in your community that you would like to solve, talk to your family, friends and neighbours and come up with concrete ideas for action.

If you are from an organization that could benefit from volunteers to improve your services and communications, outreach to community, fundraise, or serve in your board: seek for ways to engage and motivate volunteers for either temporary or long-term commitments. There are a lot of enthusiastic young and old people out there looking for a meaningful – and fun – way to spend their free time!

If you are already a volunteer: tell others about your work and invite them to join you. In my home country, Finland, half of the not-yet-volunteers say that they would like to volunteer – if only someone asked them to. Volunteerism is an addiction worth spreading, as our world would look very different – and much less happy – without active citizens willing to give their time, skills, passion and social network for a cause they deeply believe in.

Contributed by

Riikka Suhonen 

She is currently serving her second year as UN Volunteer in Bhutan, now at the UN Resident Coordinator’s Office. 

What is volunteering?

Volunteering has been defined as “help that individuals give to others either informally to friends and neighbours outside of their own household, or formally to organizations such as religious institutions, schools, or civil society organizations. People do this work freely, without pay, and for the common good, in order to benefit others.”

(Source: Hayward & Colman. 2012. The Economic Value of Voluntary Work in Bhutan. Monograph No. 2, 2012. National Statistics Bureau: Thimphu.)

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