Giving for a Better World

A school-based research project is exploring how generosity improves personal wellbeing.

Does genuine care for others lead to benefits for givers, as well as recipients?

That’s the question a collaborative research project between Deakin University and Geelong Grammar School is hoping to answer.

Professor Craig Olsson, Dr Bill Hallam and Professor John Toumbourou from Deakin’s Centre for Social and Early Emotional Development (SEED) are working with the Institute of Positive Education at Geelong Grammar School on the two-year project, supported by a Foundation for Rural and Regional Renewal grant.

The project commenced last year under the Institute of Positive Education, based at Geelong Grammar, with the larger 2017 iteration bringing Deakin on board.

“Numerous studies indicate volunteering and acts of social contribution are mutually beneficial to the giver and the receiver,” Prof Toumbourou said.

“Acts of caring for others and the community seem to develop leadership, resilience, meaning and purpose and promote a stronger sense of identity in those who socially contribute.

“Wellbeing in this model is identified with caring beyond self-interest not only for self, but for others and the wider community.”

Approximately 60 volunteer students from Years Eight and 10 will take part in the study during second and third terms for one hour a week. Each Year 10 student will mentor a Year Eight student as the younger student plans and implements a project that adds value to the community or another individual’s life.

Dr Hallam explained that the research project would investigate whether evoking and developing caring behaviour in students would foster character development and enhance social, emotional, academic, and moral wellbeing.

The program also includes a module about “eudaimonic wellbeing”, delivered via a ten minute seminar at each weekly session.

“Eudaimonic wellbeing focuses on the meaning and happiness gained through the experience of giving back. It is associated with giving and self-expression, driven by the motive to help others,” Dr Hallam said.

”In contrast, hedonic wellbeing focuses more on seeking pleasure and avoiding pain; it is associated with receiving and taking in, and doing things for the goal of feeling good.

“Many people do take the eudaimonic approach at times – such as helping an elderly neighbour with their groceries – but we don’t often recognise this in our day-to-day life.

“It’s important to distinguish the two, as one is very important for our emotional wellbeing, but our society tends to focus on the hedonic other.”

Dr Hallam said a general lack of cohesion in understanding the construct of wellbeing, among the general public and professionals alike, highlights difficulties for adequately measuring or achieving that state.

“Our culture tends to have a very utilitarian philosophy, that of self-interest. In contrast, the Virtue Ethics approach, which is based on Aristotle’s philosophy of eudaimonic wellbeing, means that values are no longer instrumental but intrinsic.

“So, if you’re kind, are you kind for the right reasons? Kindness without the expectation to receive kindness back might seem unusual for some people. Often kindness can have instrumental strings attached as a means to find acceptance, belonging or some more tangible benefit. There can be a lack of understanding for genuine, or intrinsic motives to help.”

Students involved in the first iteration undertook initiatives including collecting old towels and blankets to donate to an animal shelter, promoting reduction of student food wastage, placing kindness cups around the school to be filled with positive messages to others, and trading in old phones to help the environment and raise funds for the Red Cross.

Results showed higher wellbeing scores for students involved in the volunteering program than those who were not.

“While this measure shows an association, rather than cause, it is encouraging for theories on pro-social behaviour,” Dr Hallam said.

“Our pre- and post-program testing is survey-based, with qualitative interviews as well. We also run the screening tool, ” General Health Questionnaire 12,” to measure levels of depression and anxiety.

“We predict those scores will decrease following the program, due to an increase in emotional resilience.

“We have developed a eudaimonic wellbeing survey, and integrated a range of pre-existing scales related to emotional health, including the Ryff autonomy scale, Ryff purpose in life scale, Australian Temperament Project’s emotional competence scale, and a combination of building trust, moral order, and emotional competence measures.

“We are hoping to extend the program to a third year, and that more research could pave the way for this type of program to become part of school curriculums.”

This story was published by Deakin Research on 8 May 2017. 

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