Staring at lines on an Excel sheet, my mind wandered, seeking refuge from my day job as a number-crunching analyst. I thought about the values my parents instilled in me: compassion, community, and service to others. A familiar haunting question gnawed away as I perused the daily slew of painful headlines: another shooting, a humanitarian crisis, rising inequity. What could I do to make a difference in the world?
After 10 minutes of overthinking all the ways I could get involved, I doubted if it was possible for me to make a real impact.
I am 28. Chances are this story is familiar to other young Americans. Perhaps the resignation spills over into a feeling of powerlessness or loneliness. Perhaps you start to question whether spending 50-60 hours a week at your job is helping the communities you care about. From there, it’s only a matter of time until the doubt affects your motivation at work and your overall physical and mental health.
We know that civic engagement — the actions we take as citizens to promote the public good — are fundamental for a free and fair society. But we often overlook the importance of civics for personal well-being, and we suffer as a result. We need to stop thinking about civics as a nice-to-have and regard it as an essential muscle that requires consistent exercise. Incorporating the right civic exercises into our daily lives will promote happier, healthier lives for us and our communities. We need to build “civic gyms” to help one another get started.
Many of us intuitively feel the connection between civics and personal well-being that researchers have scientifically shown exists We feel good when we’re connected to our communities and understand how we fit into a broader mission of public purpose. Civic engagement is positively associated with both mental and physical health benefits and is listed as a social determinant of health by the US Department of Health and Human Services. From participating in community meetings to organizing movements for change, civic engagement fosters shared purpose and agency.
Unfortunately, intuition alone is not always enough to support meaningful civic engagement. Fifty percent of Americans ages 18 to 29 surveyed don’t get involved civically, according to a 2018 Public Religion Research Institute poll, because they feel uninformed about the issues or don’t feel they can make a difference. It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that we see negative related outcomes like the loneliness epidemic that AARP reports affects over 40 percent of Americans.
But it’s not our fault.
We were never taught that civics is a muscle, much less how to exercise it. Most of us only hear the word civics in our high school history class and promptly forget about it after. We were never told that many of the benefits of civic engagement fade over time or that we should plan to do regular civic exercise as part of a healthy lifestyle. We were never taught that, like physical workouts, not all civic exercise is created equal. That the most effective civic exercise deepens our empathy for others in our community, supports our understanding of local issues and our role in affecting change, and offers the opportunity for us to have lasting impact.
Unfortunately, even if we knew all this, many of us wouldn’t find effective outlets to exercise civically. Too often, opportunities to vote, volunteer, or attend a town hall meeting feel transactional or low impact and only cement the doubt that real change is possible — compounding our powerlessness and isolation and, in turn, depressing our mental and physical well-being. With record-high numbers of young people seeking civic purpose, we risk inflicting a generational harm on the well-being of young people across the country unless we can create the right outlets to translate this energy into action.
Fortunately, civic entrepreneurs are trying to create new opportunities for civic exercise. As an example, Citizen University has been spreading the concept of Civic Saturdays to create spaces to convene, discuss community issues, and foster shared purpose. My organization, GenUnity, seeks to create an accessible, equitable “civic gym” — starting in Boston — that supports our members’ collaboration with local leaders and deepens their understanding and agency on the community issues — such as eviction and housing insecurity — that they are most passionate about.
This field of work in civic engagement is still emerging, but each of us has a stake in the outcome and the ability to push the movement forward. Next time you feel powerless, take a moment to research the work of civic entrepreneurs. Consider trying out their programs or even designing your own civic workout to share with others. Exercising your civic muscle can do wonders for yourself and those around you.
Jerren Chang is an MBA/MPP graduate student at Harvard Business School and Harvard Kennedy School and a cofounder of the civic leadership startup GenUnity.