Whatever happened to candy stripers? Of course, I’m talking about the teen volunteers who donned red and white stripes (hence the name “candy striper”) in hospitals who would chat with the patients and help make them comfortable.

Candy Stripers VolunteeringSource: Florida Memory/Wikimedia Commons/Public DomainCivic engagement todayVolunteerism and community activities were common school requirements for high school students in decades past. But youth civic engagement has changed over the years to move away from citizen participation to a focus on the self, whether building a personal brand to get into college or finding a job. What we may have lost sight of is that civic engagement actually serves us—and it serves us all the way to the ends of our lives.

Civic engagement is when we’re able to engage ourselves in something outside of our own immediate self. Examples of civic engagement are voting and participating in some activity with our house of worship, our communities, or schools. People can start at a very early age.

Sherrod, a developmental psychologist and the former Executive Director of SRCD, noted that we need to see more young people becoming engaged with others globally (Heiser, 2016). Activities can reflect what they believe in, like helping to get the vote out, canvassing for political parties, getting involved in school activities, donating time at the ASPCA, or getting involved in any online campaigns. (It doesn’t always have to be in person.) Public participation is crucial because as soon as we learn the value of how we fit into the world, we will see the value of how much of an impact we can make on the world. This sets the foundation to see that every step we take leaves a footprint globally, gives us a purpose in our lives, and sets the stage for future development and personal growth.

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The benefits of civic involvementAs soon as we see the benefits of being a community member, it helps us all the way through to the end of our lives. This is especially noticed in Midlife

when we reach the stage of generativity. Dan McAdams, Professor at Northwestern University and author, researcher, and authority on the topic of Generativity, defines it as aiming to be of some use to the next generation by investing ourselves in the next generation (Heiser, 2016). What we “generate” is very much a reflection of us, but at the same time, we have to nurture others. So, this concept isn’t simply altruism; there is a bit of narcissism as well.

For example, people who score high on generativity measures tend to be more involved in their children’s schooling, and they tend to be more effective parents. Those who are generative tend to be more involved in their communities, and they volunteer. If they’re religious, they do more religion than less generative people. They’re more politically active—not liberal or conservative; they could go either way—but they vote, they take action.

Civic engagement is an aspect of generativity, as we involve ourselves in caring for and becoming involved in making a positive impact on the world around us. If we can let kids know this early on, as young as we can, they will have a purpose and meaning attached to what they do, which will provide a sense of power and control that will last throughout their lives. This makes it so much easier to give back later in life, which we know from research is beneficial for our well-being.

Research shows those who have meaningful connections with others are happier as they age (Carstensen, 2011), and there are physical health benefits for those who are engaged in meaningful connections (Vaillant, 2000). These positive benefits are not temporary. They last through our whole lives.

So, what are you waiting for? Set your future up now and get civically engaged!


DebbieHeiser. (2016, May 18). Dan McAdams Generativity. YouTube.


DebbieHeiser. (2016, September 22). Lonnie Sherrod Civic Engagement. Youtue.


Carstensen, L. (2011). Older people are happier. TED. https://www.ted.com/talks/laura_carstensen_older_people_are_happier.

Vaillant, G. E. (2000). Adaptive mental mechanisms: Their role in a positive psychology. American Psychologist, 55(1), 89–98. https://doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.55.1.89

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Originally Published on https://deborahheiserphd.substack.com/

Deborah Heiser, PhD The Right Side of 40

Deborah Heiser, PhD is an Applied Developmental Psychologist with a specialty in Aging. I'm a researcher, TEDx speaker, contributor for Psychology Today, Substack blogger, CEO of The Mentor Project, and adjunct professor of Psychology.

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