In India, ‘seva’ is believed to help one’s internal growth and contribute to the improvement of a community. It is understood that selfless action performed by many people will bring about good energy, balance and harmony. In the West, we have called this volunteerism.
As a mother of two children, both born and raised in North America, I’ve wondered how to convince them that seva or volunteerism is a critical component of a thriving community and their sense of responsibility and well-being?
Luckily, neuroscience has my back.
Giving back feels good – really good. I’m convinced that human beings are hardwired for goodness. My own experiences with seva/volunteerism informs this belief.
Whether in the kitchen of a women’s organization in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside or a high-profile Board, my work has always yielded the same results for me: a feeling of euphoria about improving someone else’s lived experience. The good news is, research indicates that the good feeling I received from volunteering is a very typical response to helping others.
Anthropologists tell us that humanity’s secret to success has been our ability to collaborate and cooperate to ensure the survival of the family, the community, etc. Contrary to what many would have us believe, we’ve evolved to cooperate, not compete. In other words, we’re most definitely hardwired to help others.
Recent studies in the areas of behavioral science and neuroscience chalk a lot of this up to a hormone called oxytocin, commonly known as the “hug drug” or the “moral molecule”. Oxytocin was discovered in 1906 and is commonly associated with the biological processes involved in childbirth. It has long been thought to play a key part in the bonding of mothers and children, and is often associated with feelings of tranquility and inner peace.
So what does this mean for children?
Research shows that oxytocin plays a role in forming the social bonds that create the strong sense of connectedness. Volunteering teaches even toddlers and preschoolers about compassion, empathy, tolerance, gratitude, and responsibility. And children who volunteer are more likely to continue doing so as adults. We need to grow this.
There are a lot of (age-appropriate) ways children can become involved in selfless service.
– Have your children pick out food to a donate to a food pantry.
– Volunteer to care for abandoned dogs or cats.
– Cook, clean or serve meals in your temple or local community centre.
– Walk to raise funds to fight disease.
– Visit a nursing home.
– Pick up litter at a local park or while you take a walk in the neighborhood.
– You and your child can bring both hot food and companionship to homebound people through a local charity food service.
– Take your kids along to drive elderly people or patients with AIDS or cancer to their medical appointments or take nursing-home residents or isolated seniors to the grocery store or to visit friends.
– Let your kids read their favorite books to children in the hospital.
When my daughter was turning 10 years old, I asked her how she would like to make a difference on her birthday. On her own, she chose to collect donations for the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre (DEWC) in her class. I had been volunteering there at the time, and had explained that women living in difficult life situations were always in need of toiletries. She raised a huge box of supplies thanks to her grade 5 class, and then decided to extend that request to the entire school.
On her birthday she arrived at DEWC with 7 large plastic bins full of soap, shampoo, toothpaste, and more. At that moment, I think she got it. She understood the power of seva. And with a little urging, has since volunteered in the Surrey Food Bank, Living Room Drop-In Centre and various churches.
Ample psychological research demonstrates that happiness and fulfilment derive from having a sense of meaning, purpose or connection. I soon discovered that children are no exception to this. They want to be engaged in purpose-filled activities too. It’s contagious. My son asked to plant trees on his 10th birthday and also volunteered in shelter kitchens.
As a parent, it isn’t easy to convince kids to volunteer. Adding to this, despite our best intentions, it’s very easy to feel isolated, exhausted, powerless and limited in a world of dynamic change. Consider teaming up with another family, inviting one of your child’s friends to help out, stopping at the park afterward or for ice cream on the way home. What initially may seem like another task on your to-do list can become a wonderful bonding experience for your family. Don’t forget science has your back too – oxytocin helps to create the trust in children that is required for them to work cooperatively in important social groups, like families, schools, and communities. The effort to get them involved will absolutely pay off tenfold.
Public speaking, communication, team work, decision-making, and leadership are just a few of the valuable life skills kids will learn when volunteering. Seva also teaches our children about becoming more comfortable with giving with no need for reward, about privilege, about responsibility, and about bettering their world; all authentic lessons they will need now and later.
Ultimately, successful kids give because it feels good.
Mita Naidu is a mom of a 15-year old daughter and an 11-year old son. She is running for Delta School Board on October 20, 2018.