I have long been intrigued by the finding that people who are single are in some ways even more connected to their communities than are people who are married. So when I learned that the eminent personality and social psychologist Mark Snyder was coming to town to give a talk, I was there.

Mark Snyder has spent more than a decade studying the psychology of volunteering. I learned so much from his talk.  I want to share what, to me, was his most intriguing discovery.

Volunteering takes lots of different forms, from the Big-Brother/Big-Sister programs to caring for people who need help to reading to kids to passing out flyers for your favorite candidate or cause and so much more. There is a paradox to volunteering, as Snyder noted at the outset of his talk. Volunteering takes time, it takes you away from other things you could be doing instead, sometimes there are hassles involved and even emotional costs; there can even be financial costs.

On top of all that, you don’t get paid. And yet, Americans do volunteer, in very high numbers. Perhaps as many as 43% do something that counts as volunteering.

So why do they do it? What motivates volunteers to do what they do, despite the costs involved and the absence of any financial reward?

Is it their values? Maybe volunteers are humanitarians who care about other people and want to help them. They want to serve other people and serve society.

That’s true. Volunteers do care about helping other people and creating a better world. But here’s the thing: So do people who do not volunteer. If the answer to what makes volunteers special and successful were that they valued helping others, I would not have called that characteristic “surprising” in the title of this post.

Mark Snyder and his colleagues also asked people about the attractions of volunteering in addition to helping other people. Those motivations could include, for example, wanting to grow as a person, wanting to learn more and understand more, wanting to feel better as a person, and wanting to make friends. You might think of those attractions as more relevant to yourself than to the people you are helping.

It turns out, Snyder discovered, that what you do for yourself while helping others is the secret sauce of volunteering. People who are getting something personal out of their volunteering – for example, people who are learning and growing and making friends and coming to feel better about themselves – are the people who are likely to continue volunteering the longest. Those who start out saying that volunteering is all about helping others – if they volunteer at all – are less likely to continue helping others over the long term.

People whose volunteering fulfills personal goals as well as their goals of helping others are not just the people who stick with their volunteering. They are also most satisfied with their volunteering experiences. Importantly, they are also the most effective volunteers – the people they are helping really do benefit from the help. This is especially so if the volunteers are getting what they hoped to achieve for themselves – for example, those who wanted to find new friends, did so.

In his talk, Professor Snyder did not dwell on the point about the secret sauce, but I thought it was profound. We think of volunteering and taking social action as altruistic – and in many ways, they are. Yet, the most persistent and effective volunteers are not just helping other people – they are also helping themselves in the process. That drive to make yourself better is what makes you better at helping other people make themselves better. Without it, you are probably just a dabbler.

[Note: I wrote this post from the notes I took at Mark Snyder’s talk. If you want to read more of his work, you might want to start with this article in the Journal of Social Issues. Also, if this didn’t satisfy your desire to read about singles and single life, you can always check out the latest from dozens of singles bloggers at Single with Attitude.]

Young volunteer photo available from Shutterstock.