Magazine article Liberal Education

Civic Engagement and Psychosocial Well-Being in College Students

Magazine article Liberal Education

Civic Engagement and Psychosocial Well-Being in College Students

Article excerpt

By DEFINITION, democracies depend on citizens' involvement in their governance. Laws and institutions are necessary but insufficient for sustaining such systems; democracies also depend on certain psychological dispositions in the people, with an ethic of civic participation, trust in others, and tolerance of dissenting views topping the list (Sullivan and Transue 1999). The late adolescent/young adult years are a formative period for developing such dispositions, but experiences are critical. In the past few decades, colleges and universities have made engagement in community service and public affairs a more common part of the undergraduate student's experience. In this article, we explore whether students' psychosocial well-being is likely to benefit from such engagement.

Relationships between civic engagement and psychosocial well-being

We cast a broad net in our definition of psychosocial well-being, including in our review both the absence of mental health problems and more affirmative conceptualizations - intra-individual ones such as optimism, self-esteem, happiness, meaning and purpose in life and inter-individual ones such as social connectedness and social trust (Keyes 2002). We also cast a broad net in the work we considered relevant to civic engagement. Such engagement presumes some sense of connection to others and to the common good. Thus our net includes research on the psychosocial benefits of helping familiar others; donating time, money, blood; volunteering; and engaging in civic or public action, community service, or voting. The common denominator is transcending self-interest and contributing to an other's well-being or to the collective (common) good.

Multiple studies of adults point to positive relationships between subjective well-being and various forms of charity, voluntarism, or kindness toward others - both in the short and the long terms. However, it is not always clear which comes first: Does volunteering or donating to charity increase a person's well-being, or are happier, more optimistic, or outgoing people more likely to volunteer? Since so many studies are correlational, this question is hard to answer.

Both genes and personality play a role in selecting individuals into civic action. For example, volunteers are more likely than nonvolunteers to exhibit positive emotions and social skills including openness, agreeableness, and extraversion (Matsuba, Hart, and Atkins 2007). Even genetic bases of political participation, such as voting or leading community groups, have been identified in research using national longitudinal samples and twin registries (Fowler, Baker, and Dawes 2008).

By definition, volunteer work entails a selection bias: people with better mental health, financial, and psychosocial resources are more likely to select into such engagement. In addition, recruitment into most forms of civic and political action occurs via organizational contexts (e.g., work or education settings) and thus selects for the socially advantaged and socially adept. Nonetheless, in their analyses of national panel data, Thoits and Hewitt (2001) found both that people with greater well-being invest more hours in volunteer work and that engaging in volunteer work further enhances life satisfaction, self-esteem, sense of control over one's life, physical health, and happiness, and lowers depression.

In general, studies of adolescents and young adults confirm the associations found for older adults: benefits to mental health, well-being, and thriving have been documented. Other things being equal, anxiety and distress are lower among youth engaged in helping and volunteering (Rietschlin 1998; Schwartz et al. 2003), with more mixed results for the effects of volunteerism on depression (Musick and Wilson 2003). Volunteerism is also negatively associated with engagement in antisocial behavior (Eccles and Barber 1999), pointing to the positive norms associated with volunteer networks. …

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