This is the fourth article in a 6-part series on raising resilient kids. In each article, we explore one practical aspect of building resilience. Be sure to check out the whole series here!
The Guy Who Got Stuck
Robert had just turned 18 and he seemed stuck in life. He barely graduated high school, had not made any real plans for college and was working at a part-time job that didn’t even pay him $8 an hour. He came in to see me at his mother’s urging. She was hoping he would somehow get motivated and get his life moving forward again.
Robert was always a smart kid, she told me. He was talented and creative and empathetic. Yet as he got older, his anxiety seemed to mount and had practically overtaken him. He no longer took any initiative. He only had a couple of friends and they never seemed to do anything together. Most of the time, he just stayed in his room and played Xbox until 3 AM, then crashed and slept until noon.
Robert was stuck.
In therapy, nearly everything we tried seemed to go nowhere. He would set short-term goals—exercise, get his sleep schedule on track, look for a better job—but never followed through. He seemed resigned to a life of mediocrity, which frustrated nearly everyone who knew him and the great potential he had.
Nearly by chance, we stumbled on something that changed his life. His dad’s best friend was visiting from out of town and talked about a camp that he ran for handicapped kids. Robert commented that he could imagine himself working with children with special needs one day.
“Could you volunteer at the camp?” I asked.
“Nah, it’s in another state,” he said, dismissively.
“But could you still volunteer there? Maybe live with your uncle and their family for the summer?” I asked.
A look that could best be described as a mixture of terror and intrigue flashed across his face. He paused and thought for a few moments.
“I’d never thought about it,” he said.
“Would you consider it this week and let me know your thoughts next time we meet?” I asked.
When he came back to see me the following week, he told me he had been considering the idea of going more than 500 miles from home and working at the camp for the summer. The possibility both terrified him and filled him with a sense of excitement that he hadn’t felt in a long time.
Robert ended up going that summer and those 90 days seemed to bring him back to life. He returned home and got a better job, started college in the spring semester, and eventually earned his degree and started a great career as a special education teacher.
You might argue that it was his ability to push past his anxiety that made the difference. You might say it was just getting out of the house and being active. Maybe it was being around positive peers that got him going.
I’m sure all of those things—and probably a few other factors—contributed to this change, but he attributed it to something entirely different.
“When I started helping those kids, it made me want to do it more,” he said. “It did something in my brain that other things couldn’t do.”
For the past several years, I’ve heard variations of this over and over again. In fact, I’ve heard it so often that encouraging teens and young adults to serve others has become the biggest revolution in my practice. What I have found is that serving others creates greater resilience in people, but also that resilient people tend to be more other-centered.
The Many Benefits of Serving Others
In another article on Psych Bytes, we explored the psychological benefits of volunteering. There is plenty of research that details the benefits of service on life satisfaction and mental health. Other-centered people live longer, are better adjusted, and see life as more meaningful. When people focus on other people and not just on themselves, they tend to be happier and have a greater sense of purpose. There’s also lots of evidence that serving others is good for our brains.
Volunteering helps the people we serve, but it also helps us in so many ways. We reap more benefits than we realize, even as we focus on the needs of others. It’s a paradox that the most self-centered people ultimately do worse—in relationships, in their mental health, in their general sense of well-being—and those who focus more on others also see benefits for themselves.
The Motives for Serving Others
We have multiple motives for nearly everything we do. This includes serving and volunteering. While we’d love to say that our motives for service are always pure and altruistic, the truth is we have many reasons for doing what we do. Psychologists Mark Snyder and Allen Omoto and their colleagues found five motives people have for volunteering:
1. Personal Values – For these people, volunteering and giving back fits with their moral or spiritual values. I recently spoke to a kid who just returned from Houston on a youth group mission trip to help families affected by the hurricane. He went because he believed his faith called for service to those in need and because he was moved to help out.
2. Concern for the Community – Some people feel attached to a particular city, neighborhood, or ethnic group and their service reflects that commitment. A friend of mine volunteers his time each month to help Nepali refugees find the resources they need because he has become particularly attached to that community and has built relationships with them.
3. Understanding – Giving back to others allows people to gain a fuller understanding of other individuals, other cultures, or other countries. Years ago, I had a client who became interested in Native American culture, so he volunteered with the Navajo Nation in Arizona. It charted the course for many years of service.
4. Personal Development – Some volunteer because it helps them personally in some way. They find it helps them make friends, expand their connections, learn new skills, or gain experience that might be attractive to prospective employers.
5. Improving Self-Esteem – Most people feel good about themselves when they give back to others. As one former addict told me, “Helping other people does the same thing to my brain that drugs used to do.” The act itself made him feel good and doing a good thing made him feel better about himself.
While all these motives might cause us to volunteer and serve others, I’d challenge you to appeal more to the first three motivators on this list than the last two when you talk to your kids about volunteering. Ideally, you want your kids to desire a life of service not because it pads their resumes or only makes them feel good, but because they have acquired personal values that are in line with being other-centered or they have developed a passion for a particular group of people or they want to understand others better. There’s plenty of room for multiple motives, but I would encourage you to tap into the aspects of volunteering that are truly focused on the well-being of others.
How Service Leads to Resilience
It’s clear there are many benefits to serving other people. It benefits our physical and mental health and gives us a greater sense of meaning and purpose. But how exactly does service lead to greater resilience?
There are at least three ways:
1. Serving Others Is Often Hard and Challenging – We only build resilience when we experience something difficult and push through it. In the same way that we only build muscle by pushing just a little bit harder, straining our bodies past their comfort zones, so it is with emotional toughness. We only get tougher and more resilient when we do something tough. Volunteering often involves being in uncomfortable situations with people who are not like us. It frequently involves physical and emotional exertion. This is what we need in order to become more resilient people.
2. Serving Others Gives Us Much-Needed Perspective – When we serve other people, we usually encounter people who have great needs. Whether we volunteer for the Special Olympics or Habitat for Humanity or Red Cross Disaster Relief or any number of other great organizations, we encounter great people who have great needs. This allows us to think differently about our own lives and develop the perspective we need to overcome adversity when it comes our way.
3. Serving Others Gives Our Lives More Meaning and Purpose – We know that people who have a strong sense of meaning and purpose live longer and thrive more. When we serve others, we have a deeper sense of meaning in our lives. We come to realize we are not here just to make our own lives happy and comfortable, but to benefit others. In doing so, we reap an unexpected reward of becoming a more resilient person who thrives, even in the face of adversity.
Being Other-Centered: Where to Start
In every community, there are more needs than can ever be fully met, so opportunities to serve others are nearly boundless. I’ve given you a few ideas already, but if you’d like some further guidance, check out either of these two links that can get you started.
Volunteer Match – Helps bring good people and good causes together by getting you connected to an organization that needs your help.
The United Way – Has many volunteer opportunities in a wide variety of organizations. I typed in my zip code and got 40 options ranging from hospice care to work with refugee children to teaching English as a second language.
Finally, I’d encourage you to get your whole family involved. Don’t just send your kid out to serve. Practice serving your community or a needy part of the world as a family. A dear friend of mine who is a physician takes his kids to a third world country every year to help serve in a community medical clinic. The experience has been invaluable for them all. Maybe you could dream big and find a cause you could all get behind and serve together! In doing so, you’ll also help your kids become more resilient.