11 Jan
  • By Elaine O Neill

How to encourage young people to make a habit of helping others?

No matter how much we learn from books or lectures, it’s our authentic experiences that make us whole. This week, we’re examining ways to stay true to ourselves, moving about the world in search of the places, people and even things that elevate our intimate understanding of the world.

“One never finishes learning about Art” writes Professor Sir Ernst Gombrich in The Story of Art, “there are always new things to discover”. What I love discovering most of all is that Art to me seems inexhaustible and unpredictable which I think reminds me a lot of life and of course relationships.

Undoubtedly we all desire relationships, relationships with our families and friends and relationships with ourselves. The key to unlocking these is often in help. That is what Art does, helping us and enabling us to create and foster love and a love of relationships.

How then do we encourage this helping hand?

Art excites as it is a thrilling world of “its own with its strange Laws and adventures”, as alluded to in ‘The Story of Art’. I think what I enjoy most about Art is that nobody should think they know all about it for nobody does. Perhaps “it is infinitely better not to know anything about Art than to have the kind of half knowledge which makes for snobbishness”, writes E.H. Gombrich. We all somewhere feel an affinity with relationships and Art to the extent that one could embark on a new direction towards the aforementioned “strange Laws” found in the world of Art as “creative Art…demands the service of a mind and heart, though sensitive yet in their weakest part heroically fashioned” from Miscellaneous Sonnets or II iii To B.R. Hayden: High is our Calling Friend. This calling could embody giving a helping hand to those that require encouragement the most.


The question is how to encourage young people to make a habit of helping others? The idea of helping others, also known as social action, service or volunteering, is often held up as a virtue of national importance. It is at the heart of treasured programmes such as the Scouts, the Guides, or the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, as well as new bodies such as the National Citizen Service (NCS) and the #iwill campaign. But how do you encourage young people to form a habit of helping others that lasts throughout their lives? In new research, we learn that the younger they started, the more likely they were to continue.

Helping others often brings benefits for individuals as well as broader society. It can develop desirable character qualities and life skills in the young people who take part. Research also shows that giving can often have a positive impact on well-being and mental health. In a three-year study that surveyed more than 4,500 people between the ages of 16 and 20, we looked at which factors were associated with young people who have made a “habit of service”. We defined this as when a young person took part in service in the preceding 12 months and confirmed they would definitely or very likely continue participating in the next 12 months. Participants who had taken part in programmes such as the NCS, VInspired and Diana Award were invited to complete the survey.

We found that young people with a habit of service were more likely to have started social action at a younger age than those without that habit. Those who first got involved under the age of ten were more than twice as likely to have formed a habit of service than if they started when they were 16 to 18 years of age. They were also more likely to be involved in a wider range of activities such as volunteering, tutoring and helping to improve their local area and would participate in them more frequently.

Top view shot of stack of hands. Young college students putting their hands on top of each other symbolizing unity and teamwork.

Given the sustained interest in character education within the Department for Education – and the recent publication of a book by the former education minister Nicky Morgan on the topic – we were also interested how encouraging young people to make a habit of service relates to different types of character virtues.

Those with a habit of service identified themselves more closely with moral virtues such as compassion, honesty and integrity and civic virtues such as volunteering and citizenship than those who hadn’t developed a service ethic. They were also more likely to recognise the double benefit of undertaking service – that it helped develop their character as well as benefiting society more broadly.

We also found that, when young people had the opportunity to lead a social action project themselves and reflect on it afterwards, they were more likely to form a habit of volunteering. One of the most important factors in making a habit of this kind of activity was if the experiences were both challenging and enjoyable.

In line with many studies on volunteering, girls were more active participants and also more likely to have formed a habit of serving their community than boys. As were those young people who practised a religion. Parents and friends were also an important factor in whether a young person make a habit of service. Friends were a bigger influence than parents on the group of 16 to 20-year-olds.

I hope that these findings will help those in the voluntary sector plan and deliver youth social action programmes which support young people to cultivate a habit of service. But the opportunities children and young people get to help others must also be meaningful to them, as well as contribute to broader societal flourishing.

“If I can stop one heart from breaking
I shall not live in vain
If I can ease one life from aching
Or cool one pain
Or help one fainting robin into his nest again
I shall not live in vain”

Emily Dickinson


Elaine O Neill BCL worked with humanitarian efforts in Africa in the field of Human Rights and saw first hand the positive impact of Volunteers and Not-For-Profit organizations.