Why volunteering is empathy in action

Empathy Cropped

Volunteering and empathy naturally go hand in hand, and results in happier individuals and stronger communities. We take a look at the reasons why.  

Empathy is the skill that helps us relate to others, work together and form the healthy bonds which are the cornerstone of a healthy society. It involves imagining the world from another person’s perspective and vicariously feeling their emotional experience.

But empathy not only keeps us connected to others, it inspires us to help. When we feel the pain, fear or anxiety of those who are most vulnerable – whether it’s a stranger sleeping in the cold or a wide-eyed child overwhelmed by the world – that empathy is what makes us want to offer support.

Empathy brings out the best in humanity. It makes our society a fairer, kinder, more compassionate place, and volunteering plays a significant role in creating that.   

The link between empathy and volunteering 

Because we’re more sensitive to other’s distress and driven towards their welfare when we empathise, it’s no surprise that numerous studies link empathy to ‘pro-social behaviour’. That is behaviour intending to benefit another or society, which includes activities such as sharing, helping, donating and volunteering. 

Pro-social behaviour stands in contrast to narcissistic behaviour. A research report from the University of Surrey explains that while ‘people with low empathy levels are less likely to engage in pro-social activities such as volunteering or supporting charities; narcissists tend to use more than their fair share of resources, are more prone to aggressive or anti-social behaviour, and are more likely to commit crimes.’ 

Why the world needs empathy now (more than ever)

This same research points to the rise in narcissism over the past three decades, showing young people to be particularly at risk. While technology has led to digital connection, in many ways, as individuals, we’ve become more isolated and inward-looking. 

Parenting expert Dr Michele Borba has come to similar findings. Based on thorough research, Dr Borba writes books and develops resources to counteract the empathy deficit in the lives of young people. 

Her latest book Unselfie reflects on our social-media-saturated society and highlights the way living virtual lives can result in neglecting to care for the people right in front of us, referring to this self-absorption as the ‘Selfie Syndrome’. She believes empathy is the antidote.  

Raising empathic young people

Developing empathy in young people isn’t only important for the wellbeing of society. According to Dr Borba, ‘a healthy sense of empathy is a key predictor of which kids will thrive and succeed in the future.’ It goes beyond fuelling us to stand up to bullying and comfort one another through hard times, it increases our own mental own health, leadership skills and overall wellbeing. 

She offers guidance for parents and all those working with young people to help develop their empathy. Her tips include everything from talking about feelings and gently pointing out other people’s feelings, to acknowledging their acts of kindness, exposing them to differences and ‘engaging in emotionally charged films and literature like The Wednesday Surprise, Charlotte’s Web, Harry Potter and To Kill a Mockingbird’.  

She says we need to start showing young people ‘the good part of the world. They need to hear elevating experiences’. This could be stories of young people making a difference in the community. 

Leading by example

One of the most powerful ways to teach empathy is through leading by example. When you volunteer you demonstrate to children that everyday kindness, helping others and contributing to your community is an integral part of building individuals and communities that thrive. 

Scouting offers a volunteering model wherein young people witness adult volunteers supporting them and imitate the same sort of kind and helpful behaviour. One of the most inspiring things for a child to see is unselfish behaviour in an adult. We see this every day in the huge number of ‘Scouting families’, where Scouting is passed down from generation to generation,  as well as the huge return rate of those who volunteer because they were Scouts themselves and feel like they want to provide the same support and opportunities that Scouting gave them.  

The power of volunteering that’s also fun

An integral part of developing meaningful empathy through volunteering is to ensure the type of volunteering feels important to the volunteer. Dr Borba emphasises this. When encouraging young people to volunteer she suggests matching the volunteering activity to their interests, explaining that ‘the best volunteering experiences capture the child’s natural interests and strengths.’ 

Because social impact is embedded into the Scout Programme, Scouting is a perfect way to introduce young people to activities that give back while offering opportunities for fun and skills development. Whether it’s learning about the critical importance of access to clean water and empathising with those who have limited access to clean water through the A Million Hands resources, or engaging in a local community project as they work towards their Community Impact Badge - the value of giving back in a fun activity-based format is what Scouts has always been about. As the Scouts’ founder Baden-Powell said, ‘the most worthwhile thing is to try to put happiness into the lives of others.’  

Empathy underpins the foundations of Scouting. It’s what has inspired and continues to inspire hundreds and thousands of people, young and old, around the world, to get together to develop young people’s skills, to support those who need it, and to have fun.   

Empathy is good for you too

When we’re connected to others in an environment that offers mutual support, we feel happier, heathier and more positive about the world – a world that depends on us working together. There seems to be no better way to do this than by having fun together. Why not take a leaf from Dr Borba’s book and ‘make kindness a family activity’? If you and your children aren’t part of Scouts already, join together today. 



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