doing good and doing well (civic engagement and happiness)

(On a northbound Amtrak train in Connecticut) I spent today at Wagner College on Staten Island, NY with knowledgeable colleagues from around the country. We were discussing the “psychosocial” effects of civic engagement. The idea is that people are better off when they participate in civic affairs, from volunteering to joining social movements. College students were the focus of today’s meeting, and the theory holds that they would flourish or thrive better if they were more engaged in community and civic work. We have a grant at Tufts to investigate that thesis rigorously.

I think the literature shows pretty convincingly that if you offer disadvantaged or marginalized teenagers opportunities to serve or contribute in ways that are constructive and feel positive, they will do better psychologically. In field experiments, teenagers’ rates of unwanted pregnancies and other bad outcomes have been cut through service programs.

But Doug McAdam showed rigorously in his book Freedom Summer that the successful college students who went to Mississippi to fight de jure segregation in 1964 paid a severe psychological price for their “service.” Using statistical data with comparison groups and in-depth interviews, McAdam showed that the Freedom Summer experience made the volunteers more likely to be divorced, less likely to be employed, and less happy by the mid-1980s. Of course, they were heroes for their contribution to the Freedom Movement. But no one would argue that their kind of “civic engagement” was good for their psychological well-being–not to mention that three of them were tortured to death within the first week of the summer.

Thus, although I am eager to investigate the empirical link between civic engagement and well-being, I think we should not be surprised to find tradeoffs between doing good and doing well.

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