Social action and the meaning of life: Doing good and being good
The 'double benefit' of social action
The notion of the 'double benefit' of social action has been refined in recent years by the youth social action movement, particularly through the work of Generation Change. Simply put, it is the idea that doing good for others is good for us. Depending on what the role entails, social action enables individuals to develop a range of skills and character traits that help us to flourish. It's hard to argue with this but I actually think that, described in this way, the double benefit is undersold.
I recently saw this quote from a young man called Michael, speaking about his experience as an Air Cadet:
"It's shown me who I am and who I can be as well."
Michael doesn't say that his experience of social action has shown him what he can do; it's shown him who he is and who he can be. This is something deeper.
Against New Year's resolutions
I've never been one for New Year's resolutions. I think that we should be thinking about how best to live our lives all the time, not just at some arbitrary point in the year. I also feel uneasy about the ever-growing self-help industry, which is reflected in the kinds of resolutions that most people seem to set for themselves. The density of runners in my local park has doubled in recent weeks (for how long?) and my local pub is full of soft-drink-swilling folk (until the end of the month?) reading the Russian novels (up to page 5?) that have been gathering dust on their bookshelves for so long. All in the name of a calendar date.
I'm cynical about all of this. (The fact that I've bought myself a new pair of Speedos and started swimming for the first time in 20 years is coincidental. I was going to do it anyway).
What is happiness?
But the main thing that gets my goat about New Year's resolutions - and the self-help industry more broadly - is the idea of happiness that underpins them. This idea says that happiness is a feeling of personal contentment. If you're happy - on this view - you say things like: "I feel satisfied with my job", "I have high self-esteem", "I'm healthy", "I have good friends", "I'm wealthy" and so on. This is a shallow notion of happiness.
Aristotle expressed this nicely when he said that the wicked cannot be happy. He didn't mean that wicked people often end up miserable because, for example, they lose friends or feel bad about themselves. He meant that goodness is built in to the very meaning of happiness. And I think that most people who it give some serious thought can see this too. (If you're not convinced, read Raimond Gaita's chapter on Meaning in his, Good and Evil: an absolute conception, for a particularly powerful argument).
Social action, happiness and meaningful resolutions
Exercising on a regular basis, drinking less and reading more novels are all good for you in one way or another. And they'll likely make you feel better about yourself - feel more content. But they can't make you happy, because they are, in themselves, morally neutral. They have nothing to do with goodness. And whilst what it means to 'be good' is complex and controversial, I think it's safe to say that giving up at least some of your time to help others is a pretty good start.
Social action organisations like those being supported through the social action innovation fund give regular people the chance to do just that. So if you do have space for another resolution - and if you're serious about happiness - why not become a mentor for The Access Project, become a Dementia Friend or be one of the first to sign up to the London Ambulance Service app that will allow regular citizens to become superheroes.
Being happy is about more than how you feel; it's about the kind of person that you are. That's what I took from Michael the Air Cadet.