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Would a Year of Voluntary Public Service Bring Out America's Best?

03/11/2015 10:28 pm ET | Updated May 11, 2015

A question we need to ask ourselves is: How do we support our young people so that they not only survive, but also thrive. The Aspen Institute's Franklin Project has an answer: Give every young person the opportunity to serve the country for a year. The goal is that a year of paid public service would become a "cultural expectation, common opportunity and civic rite of passage for every young American."

This national shift in priority would give young adults not only the opportunity to address significant national problems, but also develop the qualities that would help improve their own health and well-being.

National service organizations such as AmeriCorps and the Peace Corps have long been cost-effective ways to address national and international problems such as poverty, disparity in education and climate change. But now we are seeing that there is an additional benefit -- improving the lives of those who serve. John Bridgeland, co-chairman of the Franklin Project & CEO of Civic Enterprises, told me: "We know that service can solve public problems at low cost. We know that service fosters habits of citizenship that persist. What leading neuroscientists are now telling us is that service and social cooperation are biologically embedded through genetics or socialization -- and that when we serve, we are healthier and happier."

In fact, research suggests that people who are more altruistic are healthier. One study of 585 people examined the independent relation of altruistic attitudes, volunteering and informal helping behavior to well-being. All three independently related to increased life satisfaction and positive mood. Further, a meta-analysis of 17 cohort studies shows that volunteering is associated with lower depression, improved life satisfaction and well-being and that volunteers have lower mortality rates over time.

Why does serving others improve our well-being? There are several possible reasons.

First, serving others gives us a sense of purpose. Positive psychology theorists have suggested that one of the keys to thriving is the ability to find a "meaningful" or "purposeful" life, in which one uses his or her strengths in the service of something "greater" than oneself. Philosophers have long held that we can distinguish between eudemonic experience, or a striving towards meaning and purpose that underlies human beings' capacity to engage in complex social and cultural behavior, in contrast to the striving for more hedonic or simply pleasurable experience. And neuroscientists are now beginning to demonstrate that these systems operate distinctly on a neurological, genetic and immune level.

In a review of the literature, The Health Benefits of Volunteering: A Review of Recent Research, the Corporation for National and Community Service's Office of Research and Policy Development described several studies showing that people who engage in altruistic activities, such as volunteering, develop an increased sense of purpose.
And there is substantial research evidence that leading a purposeful life can improve health and well-being throughout a lifetime.

One research study from the Midlife in United States (MIDUS) data followed more than 6,000 people over the course of 14 years, with more than 500 dying during the course of the study. Those who died were less likely to have a sense of purpose. Another study that followed 900 older adults over seven years found that having a sense of purpose resulted in lower risk for Alzheimer's disease and cognitive decline. Accordingly, research suggests that older people who have a sense of purpose are more likely to engage in preventive health care and less likely to use costly hospital services.

Further, people who make social investments in work, relationships and community may develop personality traits that are associated with long-term health and well-being. For example, studies suggest that people who have social investments develop higher levels of conscientiousness. This conscientiousness appears to be associated with improved health behaviors and well-being, as well as increased longevity.

And those who serve may have a bottom-line benefit: Employers recognize and seek out skills such as conscientiousness. Mary Bruce, co-executive director of AmeriCorps Alums says: "Two in three alums say they learned valuable workplace skills through service. Public, private and nonprofit recruiters tell us time and again that AmeriCorps alumni are just what they're looking for and what's hard to find: proven, dedicated, results-oriented leaders ... the best of America."

A recent study by the Corporation for National and Community Service, a federal agency that promotes volunteerism, examined employment among more than 70,000 jobless people between 2002 and 2012. Results showed that those who volunteered had a 27 percent better chance of finding a job than those who did not volunteer.

Peace Corps Director Carrie Hessler-Radelet says: "By taking employers of national service to scale, we're able to match great employers with great employees. That means more companies, more nonprofits, more local and state governments and more institutions of higher learning find what they are looking for: people with the grit, skills and spirit to get the job done.

For the Peace Corps, this partnership has been an incredible opportunity to help our returned volunteers secure employment after their service, discover new outlets for their skills and continue serving here at home. Peace Corps volunteers bring their experience, knowledge and ideas back to the U.S., and the ripple effect of their global outlook follows them wherever they go.

The beauty of the Franklin Project's vision is that we already know that we have more young people wanting to serve than we have opportunities. To be sure, there are many ways for people to thrive. But what is potentially compelling about the Franklin Project's vision is that it is creating a broader, cultural movement by which service to country is not only an option, but is expected and encouraged. Bringing young people in to serve on a national level would provide a framework as they develop.

Tara Maller, associate director for strategic communications at the Franklin Project of the Aspen Institute, tells me:

Personally, I think that experience of serving gives you a unique perspective that you don't typically gain in the private sector or through your educational experiences. When you serve -- whether in government or in the military or in a national service program like AmeriCorps or Peace Corps -- you tend to become more personally invested and connected to the mission and cause at hand, even if other factors may have driven your decision to serve. The experience of serving in and of itself becomes transformative.

So what would this country look like if every young person asks the question: "What will I do during my service year?"