Vinspired is a UK youth volunteer organisation who, earlier this year, commissioned me to explore the academic literature to establish if volunteering is good for adolescent and young adults’ brains. Vinspired is not just any youth volunteer organisation, it is extremely progressive, encouraging young people not just to sign up to one of the thousands of existing projects available around the whole country, but also to identify new opportunities to volunteer in the local community. Once engaged in clocking up volunteer hours on their chosen project they are encouraged to film their activities and post it online so that other young people can take inspiration from their activities. Tonight at the Roundhouse in London’s Chalk Farm the regional winners of the annual competition come together to find out who will win the overall prize. I feel privileged to have received an invite and based on what I heard from Vinspired people attending the BetaGen launch in Jan, I’m sure there will be plenty of inspiration.
Volunteering involves helping other people for free. On a superficial level instead of financial remuneration what the volunteer gets out of it is official recognition from Vinspired for the number of hours they have put into their charitable activities so that this information is beyond dispute when described on the person’s CV. And having such things on the CV really does help employers differentiate between the good and the very good candidates. On a slightly deeper level it provides the opportunity to learn valuable new skills on the job and to be in the firing line of any unexpected job opportunities that might spontaneously arise in that working environment. Most importantly for me, it gives the opportunity for young people to experience the intrinsic pleasure of prosocial behaviour, to enjoy the psychological benefits of belong to a group of individuals working together to improve something important in their local community and to feel the sense of pride that comes from striving towards and reaching a meaningful goal.
Neuroimaging studies have demonstrated that when a person unexpectedly wins some money, the pleasure pathways of the brain become more active. These same brain structures become less active when a person experiences an unexpected financial loss. Broadly speaking this accounts for the increase in happiness that we feel when we win and the decrease in happiness we feel when we lose. If however money is taken out of a players account (strictly speaking a financial loss) and moved into the account of a worthy charity, activity levels in the pleasure pathways do not decrease, but instead increase. And if others are able to witness the generous donation to charity the activity of the pleasure pathways increases even more!
This, I believe, helps to explain why our first instinct when we encounter a person in need is to help them. Prosocial acts are often not reciprocated by the person in need. Indeed, they are usually in no position to pay back the act of generosity, now or ever. But in the short term the giver of help benefits from a feeling of pleasure generated by the brain’s reward pathways in response to generous, unselfish behaviour. Furthermore such behaviours also earn the respect and admiration of other people, providing a sense of belonging and acceptance that is incredibly important to psychological wellbeing. This is particularly the case during adolescence when family ties often become strained and friendships are in a constant state of flux. Several studies conducted in the 1990’s indicated a range of psychological benefits enjoyed by individuals who engaged in helpful behaviour well into adulthood i.e. volunteers. They found that not only do volunteers experience greater personal happiness (Ellison, 1991), self-esteem (Gecas & Burke, 1995) and life satisfaction (Wheeler et al, 1998), but they are also less prone to depression (Rietschlin, 1998).
In the long term, society – dependent as it is on cooperative behaviour between its members to function properly – repays consistent prosocial behaviours by bestowing privileges and granting favours. And tonight, I’m very much looking forward to seeing some Vinspiring young people being officially acknowledged and placed on a pedestal to reward their consistent selflessness.
The secret of our species’ success is our ability to form flexible cooperative groups that together achieve more than the sum of their parts. Prosocial behaviours rewarded and encouraged by the Vinspired annual awards encourages yet more people to get involved, generating more positive experiences of trusting and being trusted. Trust is the vital glue that makes groups thrive and membership of a group increases a person’s sense of belonging – so vital for psychological wellbeing.
Long live Vinspired. And if you’ve never volunteered before – young or old – get involved. The investment of your time pays out in a currency that money can’t buy.
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