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Article Series: Citizen Frank

“If you help me today and I’ll help you tomorrow, we’ll both be better off.”

At the top of the introduction to Kansalaisareena’s (Citizen Forum) activity is stated that “almost half of the Finns do volunteer work, and four out of five are interested in doing volunteer work.”

Naturally, volunteers have an interest in knowing more about the positive health benefits of volunteer work. Postdoctoral researcher Frank Martela from the University of Helsinki and Filosofian Akatemia Oy spoke at the Helsinki Book Fair about the latest findings and conclusions in compassion research from the perspective of volunteers.

Frank has dealt with this topic for example with professor Anne Birgitta Pessi in their new and important book Myötätunnon mullistava voima (The Radical Power of Compassion). What new or reconfirmed information has been gathered internationally about researching volunteer work as a way to do good?

– The most interesting information has been gathered about seniors doing volunteer work and longevity. It seems that people who do volunteer work live longer than those who don’t. More broadly it has been shown that doing good improves happiness and wellbeing.
Do people have a basic need to do good? Aren’t we fundamentally selfish beings?

– Modern evolution theory gives a number of mechanisms that explain why those more prone to helping others have survived better than those who lack this ability. If you help me today and I’ll help you tomorrow, we’ll both be better off in the long run than if no one ever helps anyone. There’s also been intriguing research findings in for example brain research and research about other primates like chimpanzees. Based on everything I’ve read on the topic, I’m inclined to believe that we have this sort of a basic need.
Volunteer work makes you feel more meaningful in life. Does being a volunteer or a peer supporter help one feel more whole if they aren’t doing paid labor?

– I believe that people have a need to feel useful – that they matter to other people. Work is often a central way for people to feel useful in a modern society. But I think volunteering can be an excellent way to get that same feeling outside of work.
There is heated discussion in society right now about citizen’s income, ideological unemployment, robots, and how Digital Age changes work among other things. How can altruistic and voluntary aid that stems from love and compassion best be a part of our welfare state’s toolbox in the future? From the perspective of a philosopher, of course.

– If we’re moving towards a society where a substantial amount of people are not doing paid labor, we’re going to need alternative channels for people to experience that they can be of use to others and express themselves. Helping others – either though an institution or by yourself – can be an important way to feel useful. So if we want to build a society where people feel that they matter even after the era when paid labor has ceased, it’s important that we recognize this humanity’s basic need and make sure that everyone can find a way to satisfy it.

Arto Manninen

Translation: Miska Tiainen

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