The past few months, with a series of disasters seemingly one on top of another, have felt apocalyptic to many, but the bright side to these dark times has been the outpouring of donations and acts of generosity that followed.
From Hurricane Harvey flooding Houston to Hurricanes Irma and Maria ripping through the Caribbean to wildfires burning Northern California, cities and charities have been flooded with donations and volunteers. The outpouring of support is critical for helping affected communities to recover. But acts of generosity benefit the do-gooder, too.
“Research suggests that these community social connections are as important for resilience to disaster is as physical material like disaster kits or medical supplies,” explained Ichiro Kawachi, a professor of social epidemiology at Harvard’s School of Public Health. “Voluntarism is good for the health of people who receive social support, but also good for the health of people who offer their help.”
The day after Cristina Topham evacuated her home as a result of the fires in Sonoma, Calif., she and her boyfriend immediately looked for ways to donate and help.
“I just felt like I had to do something. I love my town and my community, and the reach of the destruction was astonishing from the very beginning,” she said.
Why is the first instinct for many to volunteer and donate after a natural disaster? One reason is that as humans we’ve evolved to survive in groups, not alone. Rallying together makes us feel less alone in the experience, explained the sociologist Christine Carter, a fellow at the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley.
“When our survival is threatened, we are going to reach out and strengthen our connections with people around us. We show generosity. We show compassion. We show gratitude. These are all emotions that function to connect us with each other,” Dr. Carter said.
Scientific evidence supports the idea that acts of generosity can be beneficial when we volunteer and give back regularly — and not just after a natural disaster. Volunteering is linked to health benefits like lower blood pressure and decreased mortality rates.
Dr. Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist and founder of the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, has been studying the effects of positive emotions, such as compassion and kindness, on the brain since the 1990s. He said the brain behaves differently during an act of generosity than it does during a hedonistic activity.
“When we do things for ourselves, those experiences of positive emotions are more fleeting. They are dependent on external circumstances,” he said. “When we engage in acts of generosity, those experiences of positive emotion may be more enduring and outlast the specific episode in which we are engaged.”
Helping others also gives us a sense of purpose. Dr. Linda Fried co-founded Experience Corps, a program that engages retirees as literacy tutors, after she discovered a strong association between a sense of purpose and well-being throughout life. Older adults who volunteered to help children with reading and writing tended to experience less memory loss and maintain greater physical mobility, one study suggested.
Giving back is a fundamental teaching of many religions. Jesus had the Golden Rule. Buddha said in order to brighten one’s own path, one must light the path of others.
During a trip to India in 2016, I experienced firsthand how the benefits of doing good are well established in Indian society. I paid a visit to a Vedic astrologer because I was anxious about an uncertain future, my own personal crisis, and received a list of prescriptions to help others to get through it. The first task was to buy a black-and-white checkered blanket, then visit a local leper colony and donate it to the first person I saw. My next task was to buy a six-pound bag of lentils, circle it around my head, chant a Sanskrit mantra and give it to a homeless person.
Certainly, many Westerners would roll their eyes at these unconventional “prescriptions,” but they were familiar to my Indian friends, who believe they hold real power.
Later, to better understand the significance of the rituals, I reached out to Dr. Deepak Chopra, author of “You Are the Universe.” He said the philosophical underpinnings in India come from the Vedas and Buddhist traditions, where “all human suffering is a result of the hallucination of the separate self.”
Dr. Chopra explained: “The moment you identify yourself as separate from other beings, or other people, or separate from life in general then you will suffer. And it all begins with initial anxiety because when you’re disconnected from people and life, you feel fear, and that creates the beginning of suffering.”
Would Western doctors ever prescribe acts of generosity? Dr. John Rowe, a professor of health policy and aging at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, doesn’t rule it out.
“We have sufficient scientific information to justify a very significant public health initiative,” he said. “If there were a retiree in my office I would ask them, ‘Do you smoke? Do you exercise? What is your diet like?’ I should also be asking them if they volunteer.”
These stories remind me of the work Sacred Heart 8th graders complete each year through the Middle School capston “Making History” project. We look forward to having the girls share their work with the Middle School community in the Spring.
Prepare to be inspired.
Anyone can make a positive difference in the world, no matter their age. And sometimes, it’s the youngest members of society who are making the biggest impact. For these extraordinary kids, age is no barrier to having a positive effect on their communities. That’s why we’ve partnered with Brawny to bring you the stories of incredible kids who, having been inspired by circumstances in their own lives, have taken-on impactful issues close to their hearts. Their actions continue to help so many others, offering further proof that making a real difference in the community is for all ages.
The simple act of coloring greatly comforted the then six-year-old Ella Tryon at University Hospitals Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital, where she was hooked up to IVs and a feeding tube during her hospitalization in Cleveland, Ohio. Ella was being treated for a severe allergic reaction to gluten, diagnosed as Celiac disease, when she wanted more crayons to color. But the hospital didn’t have enough due to cross-contamination risks.
So Ella and her parents, Jackie and Chris Tryon, decided to do something about it by creating her campaign, “Help Me Color A Rainbow,” which collects crayon donations from across the United States to benefit other young patients. The first crayon drive aimed to collect 10,000 boxes by Christmas—and last October, Tryon delivered 13,132 boxes of crayons and 254 coloring books.
“Not only did she surpass her goal, she did it two months early,” Jackie said. “After, we asked her what she wanted to do now, and she said she wants every kid in the United States to have their own box of crayons if they’re in the hospital.”
Ella is well on her way to meeting her goal of sending 1,000 boxes of crayons to every children’s hospital in the nation and 5,000 boxes specifically to St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee. And it seems Ella’s compassion is contagious: a donor gave thousands of boxes in her name to Primary Children’s Hospital in Utah and a Miami donor has already contributed enough money to meet Ella’s goal for St. Jude’s.
“And she’s still going,” Jackie said. “She wants to deliver them in person as much as she can.”
Jaylen Arnold’s motor and vocal tics, associated with Tourette’s Syndrome, made school life difficult for the elementary school student. But the resilient 8-year-old decided to confront his challenges with educational awareness instead—he created “Jaylen’s Challenge” to put an end to school bullying. Through donations, his campaign produces anti-bully wristbands, posters, books and other materials to help teachers spread the message of tolerance to their students. Celebrities including Leonardo DiCaprio and Ellen Degeneres have supported his cause, and Arnold recently received the Princess Diana Legacy Award for his humanitarian efforts.
When Shanneil Turner and her family moved from San Francisco to Vacaville, California, they joined the local Boys and Girls Club. The support of the club helped Turner’s family, who was struggling and couldn’t afford to buy her the athletic shoes that the then 15 year old needed to try out for her high school basketball team.
“I remember when she walked into my office with duct-tape holding together both shoes,” said Anna Eaton, director of the Vacaville Neighborhood Boys and Girls Club.
The Boys and Girls Club stepped in and provided her with a scholarship to purchase shoes—and Turner decided to give back to show her appreciation.
“I thought, ‘Wow, there’s people out there who want to help me accomplish my dreams,’” Turner said.
Wanting to pay it forward, Turner raised $11,000 to provide footwear vouchers for student athletes who apply to her program, which she dubbed “Shanneil’s Locker.” Nike and Kaiser Permanente have donated scholarships and shoes to Turner’s mission to provide other kids with the opportunity to run after their dreams.
4. Knitting Compassion For Others
Photo provided by Sheryl Lowry
After Garrett Lowry lost his grandfather and his beloved cat to cancer, he knew that he needed to show other cancer patients just how much he cared. Thanks to his grandmother’s knitting lessons, the then 11-year-old Garrett turned a class philanthropic project into an ultimate act of compassion.
He has knitted more than 150 caps for kids suffering from cancer, donating the caps to hospitals in California and Colorado so the young patients can feel better. Chemotherapy causes the kids to lose their hair, and Garrett’s generosity provides them with head coverings. Now his parents, Sheryl and Don Lowry, are are helping him develop a foundation to continue his efforts.
“This past year his uncle also died of pancreatic cancer, so he really wants to continue doing something for kids who are going through what he sees as a horrible time,” Sheryl said. “And he’s continuing to buy the yarn, make the hats and donate them.”
Garrett showed an empathetic streak early on, Sheryl said. For his seventh birthday he donated all of his birthday gifts to the Ronald McDonald House, and he recently delivered 50 hats to the Children’s Hospital of Orange County, California, where his five-year-old friend with neuroblastoma is being treated. His big heart is truly comforting the kids who need it most.
When Addisyn Goss met her grandfather for the first time two years ago, she learned that he had been homeless for many years. His stories of struggle inspired the now 10 year old to take action, and she created the “Snuggle Sacks” campaign in areas around Flint, Michigan.
“She immediately wanted to do something to help,” said Addisyn’s mom, Stacy Daul. “Homelessness is unfortunately something we see on the way to the grocery store, so it really hit home for the kids.”
Addisyn’s sister and brother, Sheridan and Jaxson, also help run the operation. Together they’ve delivered about 1,700 survival kits to people in need. The Snuggle Sacks include toiletries, snacks and warm coverings for men, women and children in need.
Their social media efforts have gained momentum and as Stacy said, “The donations have only kept coming … we are so very proud of her!” Two years later, Addisyn makes about 100 sacks per month and delivers them personally to individuals living on the streets or to local soup kitchens, homeless shelters and YMCAs.
“When people come up to me and are so excited to get a Snuggle Sack, it makes me happy,” Addisyn said. “They love putting the socks on right away, and I can see they are smiling even though they live a hard life. It gives me hope that I am helping.”
A few years ago, Emma Burkhart received two of the same blankets as gifts and it sparked an idea: Give blankets to children who may need a blanket more than she did. So nine-year-old Emma started the “Keep Kids Warm Blanket Drive“ and set a goal to collect 200 blankets for local children in need within her community in Durant, Oklahoma.
Success encouraged her to make it an annual effort and last year she collected more than triple the first year’s number: almost 900 new blankets! The blankets went to 11 different organizations, according to Emma’s mom, Melisa Burkhart.
“She has also been able to help children that have lost everything in house fires by giving them a new blanket or comforter,” Melisa said. “Blankets were also given to the homeless community, nursing homes, police stations and fire stations in her hometown.”
Emma feels the biggest impact it has made on the community is showing kids that no matter how old you are you can help others, her mom explains.
“She also loves seeing how happy it makes children when they receive their new blanket,” Melisa said. “We have a wonderful community that has really helped to make Emma’s dream come true and she cannot wait to start the blanket drive again for this year.”
Emma intends to turn “Keep Kids Warm Blanket Drive” into a non-profit organization to continuing sending warm wishes throughout her community.
An interesting article about the importance of students finding a higher purpose in their learning. We help our students make connections with the needs of their local community and the world through our service-learning program.
A few years ago, psychologist David Yeager and his colleagues noticed something interesting while interviewing high school students in the San Francisco Bay Area about their hopes, dreams and life goals.
It was no surprise that students often said that making money, attaining fame or pursuing a career that they enjoyed were important to them. But many of them also spoke of additionally wanting to make a positive impact on their community or society — such as by becoming a doctor to take care of people, or a pastor who “makes a difference.” What’s more, the teens with these “pro-social” types of goals tended to rate their schoolwork as more personally meaningful.
Given this information, Yeager and his colleagues wanted to know: could such a bigger sense of purpose that looks beyond one’s own self-interests be a real and significant inspiration for learning? They believe the answer is yes. And they’ve devised a new social psychology intervention to foster a “purposeful learning” mindset as another way to motivate pupils to persevere in their studies. Yeager, now based at the University of Texas (UT) at Austin, conducted the work in collaboration with UT colleague Marlone Henderson, David Paunesku and Greg Walton of Stanford, “grit” guru Angela Duckworth of the University of Pennsylvania, and others.
They recently explored purposeful learning in a series of four studies and put their intervention to the test against one of the banes of learning: boredom. Initial promising results suggest the psychology strategy could encourage pupils to plug away at homework or learning tasks that are challenging or tedious, yet necessary to getting an education that’ll help them reach their greater life goals.
Can Drudgery Be Eliminated from Learning?
The idea of drudgery in schoolwork is anathema to many progressive educators these days.Game-based approaches to learning are far favored over “drill-and-kill” exercises. And while an emphasis on fortifying students’ academic “grit” and self-discipline in their study habits has been explored in depth, it’s controversial. Along with criticisms about deeper implications relating to race and poverty, some observers say the buzz over grit neglects the need to make dull classroom lessons more compelling to today’s learners. As education author Alfie Kohn has written, “not everything is worth doing, let alone doing for extended periods, and not everyone who works hard is pursuing something worthwhile.”
It’s complicated, though. At Stanford’sProject for Education Research that Scales, Paunesku believes that teachers and educators should make learning more engaging wherever possible. “However, the reality is that schoolwork is often neither interesting nor meaningful,” he said — at least, not in a way that students immediately get. “It’s hard for students to understand why doing algebra, for example, really matters or why it’ll help them or why it will make a difference in their life.” Yet, he noted, such work is often key in building basic skills and knowledge they’ll need for a successful future.
With that in mind, Yeager and Paunesku designed an intervention that subtly guides students to connect their academic efforts with pro-social long-term goals, to see whether it might help inspire them to plow through assignments that are “boring but important.”
As a baseline, the research team first investigated a mindset of “self-transcendent” purposeful learning by surveying 1,364 low-income high-school seniors at 10 urban public schools in California, Texas, Arkansas and New York. The teenagers sat down at a computer and took an “academic diligence task” devised by Duckworth and Sidney D’Mello of the University of Notre Dame. For a few minutes, the participants had the choice of either doing lots of simple, tedious math subtraction problems, or watching YouTube video clips or playing Tetris.
The students with a purposeful-learning attitude (who agreed with socially oriented statements like “I want to become an educated citizen that can contribute to society”) scored higher on measures of grit and self-control than classmates who only reported self-oriented motives for learning such as wanting to get a good job or earn more money. The purposeful learners were also less likely to succumb to the digital distractions, answering more math problems on the diligence task — and they were more likely to be enrolled in college the following fall, the researchers found.
The Potential of a Purposeful Mindset
Next, a pilot experiment tested the sense-of-purpose intervention to see if it would improve grades in math and science (two subjects often seen as uninteresting): The researchers asked 338 ninth graders at a middle-class Bay Area high school to log online for a 20- to 30-minute reading and writing exercise. The teenagers read a brief article and specific quotes from other students, all conveying the message that many adolescents work hard in school not just to gain knowledge for, say, pursuing a career they like — but also because they want to achieve “something that matters for the world.”
Study participants then wrote short testimonials to other, future students describing how high school would help them become the kind of person they want to be or make an impact on society. As one teen explained, “I believe learning in school will give me the rudimentary skills to survive in the world. Science will give me a good base for my career in environmental engineering. I want to be able to solve our energy problems.” Another ninth grader wrote that having an education “allows me to form well-supported, well-thought opinions about the world. I will not be able to help anyone without first going to school.”
A few months later, at the end of the grading quarter, the researchers observed positive effects from the intervention, most notably in the weakest students: Underachieving pupils saw their low GPAs go up by 0.2 points. That’s a helpful improvement, said UT Austin’s Henderson, because many pivotal educational decisions hang in the balance based on a GPA cutoff. A few tenths of a point can make or break a student’s acceptance into a program or a school, which could in turn affect what type of job she ends up getting and ultimately, the salary she earns, Henderson said.
“GPA is really a better long-term predictor of not just educational outcomes but all kinds of positive life outcomes,” commented education researcher Camille Farrington of the University of Chicago. A 0.2 point gain in GPA could bump a B to a B+ or a B+ to an A-, she noted, which is an important impact given how brief and relatively inexpensive the sense-of-purpose treatment was. Many other education interventions take a lot more time, energy and money, yet “don’t give any more of a bump than that,” she said.
How Does It Work?
As with other kinds of academic mindset strategies, the benefit from the sense-of-purpose intervention “almost seems like magic,” Henderson said. But it’s not, (as Yeager and Walton have previously elaborated). The research team ran two other experiments (with college undergrads) that helped unpack how the intervention might work: by motivating students to engage in deeper learning, and by bolstering self-control in resisting tempting distractions from schoolwork (as measured again by Duckworth and D’Mello’s diligence test).
What a purposeful mindset does for students is that “when they encounter challenges, difficulty or things that could potentially be roadblocks to learning, it motivates them to persist and barrel through,” Henderson said. The psychology researchers don’t know how long the positive effects last, but they speculate that just a small shift in students’ attitudes could spark a chain reaction of stronger academic performance and confidence that builds upon itself and endures over time.
Such a payoff can be hard to believe. After all, grownups have forever been telling children any number of reasons why a good education is important for their future. But here’s the thing: The technique for nurturing a sense-of-purpose mentality is designed so that “the student owns that and kind of puts those pieces together in their own heads, for themselves,” Farrington noted. “And that is a different thing than your mom or your teacher telling you, it’s important to do this because blah, blah, blah, blah.”
Other, self-oriented goals such as making money or getting out of their parents’ house didn’t seem to inspire students as much as the self-transcendent goals did in the studies. That’s worth noting, Farrington said, especially considering that youths from low-income backgrounds are often exhorted to study hard so that they can get out of their disadvantaged neighborhoods and go to college or find a good job. If the research results are right, these kids may get more motivational mileage out of the goal of making a meaningful contribution to the world. “That’s consistent with what we know in social psychology: that people are motivated by, they care about having meaning in their life,” she said.
The sense-of-purpose work is just in its beginning stages, Henderson said, with the psychologists still tinkering to improve the intervention. They want to explore whether the technique can reduce student cheating, and whether teachers can “activate” the purposeful-learning mindset by writing simple, subtle and carefully tailored messages of feedback on classwork, he said.
Finding Meaning in Schoolwork
The experiments with the new strategy beg the question of whether the researchers are implicitly endorsing drill-and-kill-style learning. They aren’t, Paunesku is quick to say. He’s all for project-based learning and other efforts to make school more relevant and alluring for students. Yet, he added, it isn’t practical or possible to render every lesson or assignment in K-12 “super fun and game-y” for kids — and even if it were, doing so could be a disservice to them later. What would they do when they get to law school and are faced with having to memorize long lists of laws? Or when they land a job that calls for mastering information that no one has “gamefied” to make it exciting to learn?
Students go to school not just to learn specific facts, he pointed out. They’re learning how to learn, how to practice self-discipline and motivate themselves through frustrating roadblocks, and thus are preparing for adulthood. That’s important even if it isn’t always fascinating, he said. But having that bigger sense of purpose, that personal mission of making a positive difference in the broader world, might help students to find meaning in difficult or mundane schoolwork. “If you think about it the right way, you can actually be motivated and you can find it interesting, even if on the surface it’s not fun,” Paunesku said.