Well-Being and Civic Engagement

Compiled by Lucas Huffman, Ginsberg Graduate Academic Liaison

Civic engagement not only benefits our communities, but has positive benefits for us as individuals, reducing isolation and creating connections with people and institutions beyond ourselves. When students are engaged in making the world better, in addition to advancing student learning, there is the added benefit of improving individual well-being. Below, we offer an overview of research findings that indicate that altruism & civic engagement contribute to emotional and mental well-being.

Numerous studies, inclusive of diverse participants of all ages, show strong links between altruistic behavior and well-being. People with higher average altruistic behavior exhibit more positive emotions, better mental health, reduced depression, and more robust well-being in response to stress.1, 2  Adolescents involved in school or community-based civic activities have elevated psychological well-being, increased academic engagement, and more involvement in activities than peers who were not involved in these activities.3  We also know from reports and interviews with elderly individuals that more frequent volunteering and involvement in civic society leads to higher ratings of life satisfaction.4

Heightened well-being leads to further altruism and initiates a cycle of positive feedback. Volunteer work enhances six different aspects of well-being: Happiness, life satisfaction, self-esteem, sense of control over life, physical health, and depression. Further, those who have greater well-being invest more hours in volunteer service.5,6  Many other studies support this two-way relationship, with greater positive emotions/well-being promoting more generosity,7 leading to activation of reward neural circuits in the brain,8 and being most effective when the individual is made aware of benefits to well-being.9 

Common cultural ideology often suggests to focus on one’s self to achieve personal well-being. Interestingly many studies show the opposite, that other-focused acts of kindness more effectively promote personal well-being. Other-focused activities significantly improve positive emotions and happiness, reduce stress, reduce negative emotions, and encourage long-lasting promotion of altruism relative to self-focused activities which are not as effective.10, 11, 12 

Reflection, especially frequent reflection, plays an essential role in tying together engagement, altruism, and well-being13, 14  Reflection also fosters critical thinking, 15 meaning making,16 and leads to more long-term commitment to community and civic responsibility and participation.14, 17 

How can I support students' well-being through civic engagement?

In recognition of this connection between civic engagement and well-being, we offer a few resources:


1. Raposa EB, Laws HB, Ansell EB. (2016). Prosocial behavior mitigates the negative effects of stress in everyday life. Clinical Psychological Science, 4(4): 691-698.

2. Schacter HL, Margolin G. (2019). When it feels good to give: depressive symptoms, daily prosocial behavior, and adolescent mood. Emotion, 19(5): 923-927.

3. Ludden AB. (2011). Engagement in school and community civic activities among rural adolescents. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 40(9): 1254-70.

4. Steptoe A, Fancourt D. (2019). Leading a meaningful life at older ages and its relationship with social engagement, prosperity, health, biology, and time use. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States (PNAS), 116(4): 1207-1212.

5. Thoits PA, Hewitt LN. (2001). Volunteer work and well-being. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 42(2): 115-31.

6. Snippe E, Jeronimus BF, Aan Het Rot M, Bos EH, de Jonge P, Wichers M. (2018). The reciprocity of prosocial behavior and positive affect in daily life. Journal of Personalized Medicine, 86(2): 139-146.

7. Lyubomirsky S, King L, Diener E. (2005). The benefits of frequent positive affect: does happiness lead to success? Psychological Bulletin, 131(6): 803-55.

8. Fehr E, Rockenbach B. (2004). Human altruism: economic, neural, and evolutionary perspectives. Current Opinion in Neurobiology, 14(6): 784-90.

9. Lay JC, & Hoppmann CA. (2015). Altruism and prosocial behavior. In N. Pachana (Ed.). Encyclopedia of Geropsychology. Springer: Singapore.

10. Nelson SK, Layous K, Cole SW, Lyubomirsky S. (2016). Do unto others or treat yourself? The effects of prosocial and self-focused behavior on psychological flourishing. Emotion, 16(6): 850-61.

11. Tashjian SM, Rahal D, Karan M, Eisenberger N, Galván A, Cole SW, Fuligni AJ. (2021). Evidence from a randomized controlled trial that altruism moderates the effect of prosocial acts on adolescent well-being. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 50(1): 29-43.

12. Dunn EW, Aknin LB, Norton MI. (2008). Spending money on others promotes happiness. Science, 319(5870): 1687-88.

13. van Goethem A, van Hoof A, Orobio de Castro B, Van Aken M, Hart D. (2014). The role of reflection in the effects of community service on adolescent development: a meta-analysis. Child Development 85(6): 2114-30.

14. Richard, D., Keen, C., Hatcher, J.A., and Pease, H. A. (2016). Pathways to adult civic engagement: benefits of reflection and dialogue across difference in higher education service-learning programs. Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, 23(1): 60-74.

15. Ash SL, and Clayton PH. (2004). The articulated learning: an approach to guided reflection and assessment. Innovative Higher Education, 29(2): 137-154.

16. Bringle RG,  and Hatcher JA. (1999). Reflection in service learning: making meaning or experience. Evaluation/Reflection, 23: 179-185.

17. Astin AW, Vogelgesang LJ, Ikeda EK,  and Yee JA. ( 2000). How service learning affects students. Higher Education, Paper 144: 1-101