Doing constructive things helps. Spreading messages on social media and signing petitions is good political work, but sometiems it can feel empty. The immediate buzz of a like or a thanks feels nice and is addictive, but doesn’t make us feel better in a lasting way. Having something in your life that feels like you’re *building* a better world can be really transformative. Doing active things with your friends is especially good. Maybe that’s volunteering for your local LGBT support group. Maybe that’s making the tea for the migrant solidarity meeting. Maybe that’s helping redecorate the benefit advice drop-in centre. This kind of everyday maintenance is vital political work and tends to feel psychologically better than tweeting or even marching.
I don’t want to criticise this message in its context. It is designed to help those who work very hard for social justice, who may in the long term be at risk of burning out. I think self care is extremely important. I write this giving full support to the sentiment expressed by the author.
It is definitely true, not just intuitively, that giving to worthwhile causes (I mean giving time, not just money) is a path to happiness. The New Economics Foundation (and Mind the mental health charity) concluded this to be the case. It is therefore extremely important for everyone’s well-being that we contribute to something we care about regularly.
By my understanding, Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ plan was the transfer of social initiatives from state-run or other large professional organisations into the hands of local communities. It takes the responsibility of looking after those in need from the (inefficient? overbearing?) state and into the hands of individuals. Like all market-driven economics – so the story goes – this will lead to an efficient and better service. Notwithstanding that such services must have care rather than profit as their principal drive, which makes you wonder whether they can be run just like businesses, this seems to be a simple solution to the problem of a care sector that is perhaps not as well-run as it should be.
However, the message above has allowed my reservation about this idea in our society come to light. I want to argue that this notion that everyone should give their time to services like this can only be a temporary solution.
Cameron basically wanted us to do what the state was previously doing, but for free. It is totally right that we give to causes we care about for our own happiness. But the fact is that, in our society in which working a 40+ work week is the idealised employment situation, you are forced to be either time or money poor. In our lives, our avenues for giving to just causes is quite slim. It is a situation in which no one has the resources to make effective change in our society.
Moreover, people who require these services need and deserve reliable, professional organisations; organisations that are sustainable and not reliant on voluntary, temporary labour. We cannot expect that, for instance, LGBT people have support only if enough people have the free time to contribute. It is not sustainable for people to want to work aiding a charity until they have ‘enough experience’ to get a ‘better job’ (no shade on those people – it’s just how things work at the moment!). Our future needs a better solution.
What about the rest of us, who want careers outside of the non-profit sector, but also want to be able to give to fulfilling social projects? Perhaps we need to end this idea that companies based on profit alone is at all sustainable – perhaps your 9-5 job needs to be just as compassionate and fulfilling as a charity working on acute social problems? I can’t help but feel that our society will continue to be unhappy, until we make work fulfilling, where every moment of work is “building a better world.”
We must not stop giving support to people who need it on the grounds that our society should be better than it is. But equally, we must recognise it is not the role of anyone who happens to have free time to give that support on a casual basis.