Doing good and feeling well : understanding the relationship between volunteering and mental wellbeing in older adult populations through the application of a social-cognitive theory of depression : a thesis presented in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Doctorate in Clinical Psychology at Massey University, Albany, New Zealand
Previous research indicates that volunteering can improve positive psychological
wellbeing, and protect against the onset of depressive symptoms amongst older adults.
However, the mechanisms at play in the relationship remain unclear. This research
project analysed two data sets in order to test the predictions of a social-cognitive theory
of depression as it applies to the volunteering-psychological wellbeing relationship.
A social cognitive theory of depression (as described by Oatley and Bolton (1985))
suggests that older adults are susceptible to symptoms of depression and reduced
psychological wellbeing when difficult life events limit their ability to maintain social
roles that have previously facilitated investment in valued facets of their self-concept.
Therefore, volunteering may compensate for such role losses by enabling older adults to
continue to contribute to their sense of self through their volunteering role, and
subsequently protect them from the effects that such role-loss may have on their
Using longitudinal data from a New Zealand-based sample, this research illustrates that
older adults who have relatively poorer physical health are more likely to be protected
from experiences of depressive symptoms as a result of consistently volunteering than
those who experience higher levels of health. Analyses of longitudinal data also provide
some evidence that employment status may moderate the impact of volunteering
consistency on protection against symptoms of depression.
In addition, analyses of cross-sectional data demonstrate a relationship between
contributions to self-concept through the enactment of social roles, and better
psychological wellbeing. This research also suggests that the extent to which negative
life events limit a person’s ability to invest in their sense of self is related to
psychological wellbeing outcomes. Finally, it is suggested that the amount of
investment in self-concept facilitated by a volunteering role is related to psychological
wellbeing. However, investment in self-concept through volunteering was not shown to
moderate the relationship between pertinent life stressors, and psychological wellbeing.
To a large extent, these findings align with a social-cognitive theory of depression
(Oatley & Bolton, 1985), but they raise questions about the way that compensatory
coping through social role changes has previously been theorised.