Jan. 5, 2010 — In recent weeks, news outlets have been reporting a disturbing new trend in California. It seems the recession is altering the way we live in unexpected and troubling ways. It seems the economic recession is contributing to a kind of civic recession as well.
New research, released in California’s 2009 Civic Health Index, showed more than 72 percent of Californians said they cut back on the time they spent volunteering, participating in groups and other civic activities.
Californians have joined a broad national trend by turning inward, cutting back on civic engagement and hunkering down. From individuals to nonprofits, donations of time and money have suffered.
Of California respondents, 61 percent said people in their community are responding to the current economic downturn by looking out for themselves, compared to only 18 percent who said people around them are responding to the recession by helping each other more.
Evaluating the degree of this “civic foreclosure” has been the task of the congressionally chartered National Conference on Citizenship. Their Civic Health Index report not only showed dramatic cutbacks in civic engagement but also declines in trust in public institutions.
Such “civic foreclosure” is doubly troubling because it carries with it not just the obvious public ramifications, but personal ones as well. Consider this: People who volunteer at a charity or nonprofit organization get a “twofer:” They help others while boosting their own health.
According to research by the Corporation for National and Community Service, volunteers as a group live longer and feel better physically and mentally than do non-volunteers. The review also suggests people who participate in volunteer activity at a younger age suffer from fewer health issues in their later years, and those older than 65 seem to gain a new lease on life by performing good deeds.
“Volunteerism seems to work primarily by enhancing life satisfaction and a sense of meaning and purpose,” said Dr. Adam Rindfleisch, an integrative-medicine practitioner and assistant professor of family medicine at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. “It may also reduce chronic pain. I often suggest people with fibromyalgia and depression get involved in a volunteer activity.”
Rindfleisch said while it’s hard to determine scientifically if volunteering promotes better health, he has seen the benefits in his patients who do volunteer. He added it doesn’t matter if volunteer work is performed at a hospital, school, animal shelter or soup kitchen: Participants are bound to experience positive results.
“It is not clear to me that any one type of volunteering makes a difference, although I believe those activities leading to the deepest connections with others are the most powerful,” he said. “My sense is that it is like cardiovascular exercise: It isn’t the specific form that matters, but rather that you do it in the first place.”
In the new year, for your own health and the health of our communities, we encourage you to continue and, if you can, even expand, your civic and charitable efforts. We can come through this recession as healthy individuals and equally healthy communities. The choice is ours: to draw in or reach out.
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