The School, a Place of Healing
More and more schools now require students’ involvement in community outreach services. For some educators, this is an integral part of the existing curriculum. For others, it is an addition to what students’ learn during regular instructional days. Regardless of its purpose, research indicates that there is more to social involvement than just enhancing learning and acquiring a rich repertoire of real-life experiences. Volunteering and helping others in the community increase the personal happiness level of students, and eventually, affect their academic performance, in significant ways.
Money, good looks, intelligence, and youth – these have often been popularly thought of as ingredients for one’s happiness. However, an article released by Psychology Today (Jan/Feb 2005) confirmed that the above mentioned components do not predict one’s happiness. In fact, when schools advocate these as being important predictors of personal satisfaction, an unwarranted pressure is placed on students. In their attempts to reach these high and unrealistic standards, students find themselves developing negative pictures of “who they are?” and “what they are capable of?”
Thus, a school that encourages students to focus on doing something good for others effectively helps to reduce the feeling of unhappiness in them. When students are happy, they emit positive feelings and these feelings facilitate the development of sound mental and physical health.
A Case to Consider (adapted from www.SelfGrowth.com)
In the year 2000, a teenage boy died in a drowning accident in a small rural town in Oregon, USA. The small town was too poor to pay for services that would allow its residents to respond to emergencies of any sort. The sad part of the story is that, the boy’s death could have been prevented if an ambulance and trained medical personnel had been available.
Stricken by an intense grief for her son’s death, the mother decided to change the situation in her small town. She directed her energy into something positive. Preventing such accidents and deaths in the future became her life-goal. Instead of waiting for things to happen, she took the initiative and proactively moved in the direction of this goal and its fulfillment.
She got herself trained and qualified, raised money to purchase an ambulance, and trained volunteers to help her. To date, it is estimated that this volunteer ambulance service has saved the lives of over 100 people that might have died, as her son did, due to a lack in emergency care.
When interviewed, she said, “It’s easier to forget your own loss when you are busy helping others.”
The Psychology of Social Involvement
Humans are essentially social beings. Research in social psychology indicate that most factors responsible for happiness are anchored in the concept of interpersonal relationship. This concept is a thread that runs through all the empirical research findings (e.g., developing good social skills, volunteering and charity work, getting married or living together, etc.) that talk about happiness and life satisfaction.
According to Shaoni Bhattacharya (Health Psychology, May 2005), “Low levels of social connectedness can adversely affect the body – lowering immune response and affecting heart health.” In other words, when an individual human becomes an isolate or loner, he/she faces a greater risk of suffering from unsound mental and physical health.
In the context of the school, it is now known that most students reject learning and perform poorly on the basis of emotional, rather than intellectual reasons. When students lack a feeling of social connectedness at school, they shut off their minds to learning and engage in what the adults perceive as ‘deviant behaviors’. In essence, this can be prevented and eventually removed if schools become a place where opportunities for social involvement and participation are encouraged and celebrated.
When students are allowed to make a difference in the lives of others around them, their attitude toward schooling changes. They become increasingly motivated to work hard, excel, and continue to contribute (in their own ways) to the community. In other words, by doing good to others, they experience the psychological removal of the “I feel bad” attitude. Their happiness level increases significantly, and the healing that they have always longed for sets-in, in the most natural manner.
Benefits of Social Involvement
Various research indicate the following to be the outcomes of active social involvement:
- Less likely to suffer illnesses – the close interpersonal relationships in community service projects enhance physical and psychological healing processes
- Improves social support networks – people with strong social support networks have lower premature death rates, less heart disease, and fewer health risks
- Improves self-esteem
- Protects from the effects of stress
- Decreases insomnia (inability to sleep well)
- Shortens surgery recovery time
- Produces a heightened sense of well-being
- Increases opportunities for close interpersonal relationships (develops social skills)
- Strengthens a sense of identity
- Increases the overall life expectancy
Apart from bringing personal benefits to students (sound physical and mental health), social involvement, in various forms of community service projects also help them to realize their place and responsibility in the larger society. These projects open their eyes to the many problems faced by the people living in the ‘world’. They become sensitive and considerate toward the needs of others. They become charged to initiate changes. They feel a sense of ownership and accountability for everything (good and bad) happening around them. These are the qualities that make up for a good citizenry.
Implications for Schools
Although students are naturally inclined to mingle around and have friends, the school must play an active role in binding them together, by means of socially involving activities and tasks. Encouraging students to work together on community service projects allows them to bond socially, on a more purposeful level. They put their heads together, plan, organize, implement, and evaluate their actions in the presence of others.
This sense of collective-achievement-of-goals produces a therapeutically healing environment in the context of positive interpersonal relationships and substantial contribution toward making others happier. The effects of this healing process is more powerful than the slow-paced healing that takes place in a counselor’s room, that spans over a period of at least 12 therapeutic sessions. In reality, the school is not just an institution of learning; it is also an institution of healing, both for students, as well as for others around it.