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Psychology of Service
What Is It That Drives a Person to Choose a Service-Centric Career?

Written by Michelle Glicksman

The psychology of service—donating your time, money or resources to help others—is both complicated and basic at the same time. In addition to those overall feel-good psychological benefits, often a person’s desire to serve is shaped by their past.

“Everyone has different reasons for serving, rather than a one-size-fits-all reason,” says Dr. Daria M. Brezinski, a psychologist in Charlottsville, Virginia, and a noted professor, lecturer, author, and television and radio host. “There are many different facets to going into service, and most of it has to do with how you were raised, your parents, and your experiences growing up.”

In fact, Brezinski notes that those who weren’t raised having been exposed to service at a young age often don’t go into service careers. But for those who do feel called to service work, they typically find that soft skills—those intangible skills that can’t be measured, such as altruism and authenticity—are brought out in the quest to help others.

Dr. Bruce McNellie, a social worker located in Nacogdoches, Texas, who, in addition to being in private practice is an adjunct professor with Northcentral University (NCU) and Stephen F. Austin State University (SFASU), agrees that sometimes the need to give back might be part of something that a person learned at home, or moral training through religious classes, which indicates that a person’s role is to help.

“There are many different facets to going into service, and most of it has to do with how you were raised, your parents, and your experiences growing up.”

Dr. Daria M. Brezinski

“It’s reinforcing something that was taught to them as children,” he explains.

However, McNellie feels that most people also generally have a need to look outside of themselves. And, while some address that need by giving monetary donations to various causes or through volunteerism, “others find an avocation,” he says. “And [among] those who strive towards service, which I think most would like to do something that’s helpful to others and which impacts lives, [they] often find it as an avocation. There’s that adage: If I have an avocation, I never work again,” he says.

Nature vs. Nurture

“Part of this is my optimism, but I think that most of us feel some sense of social obligation. I like to think that most everyone has some sense of it… Some [just find the] avocation that they can make work for them as a career,” McNellie continues.

While there is always that fine line between earning enough money to cover your needs and pursuing a career you find meaningful, a percentage of the population will find themselves pulled towards a service-centric role.

And while both Brezinski and McNellie point to childhood experiences shaping a desire to serve, as well as an intrinsic need to give back for some, there may also be some underlying biological factors that serve as the catalyst for choosing a service-centric career.

McNellie points out that there have been studies conducted via functional MRIs that indicate that there are parts of the brain that actually respond to giving, meaning that some people are actually “hardwired” to give.

One such study, supported by the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health, U.S. National Institute of Neurological Disease and Stroke, institutional funds from Duke University, and published in the online journal Nature in Jan. 2007, found that altruism is associated with an increased neural response.

There have been studies conducted via functional MRIs that indicate that there are parts of the brain that actually respond to giving, meaning that some people are actually “hardwired” to give.

“So, for some people, there may just be a ‘high’,” McNellie explains.

Other benefits of serving others includes better stress management and resilience, which are enhanced by connecting with others in need, which is believed to be due to better perspective taking, according to the article, “Helping Others Offers Surprising Benefits,” published in Psychology Today.(1)

This may explain why, says Brezinski, “The people I see who are the happiest are those who are in occupations of service. They have a sense of fulfillment—they realize they are helping another human being.”

Technology Plays a Role

Technology is certainly pervasive in today’s world. And with it came the rise of social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, which encourage sharing in a way that focuses on the participant’s own life, and from an arm’s length, not typically engaging directly and in-person with others.

“We live in a ‘selfie’ culture now,” points out Brezinski. “But service careers bring you out of yourself. They create more of an atmosphere of belonging and being a part of something. The more opportunities to serve that are available to you, the more you belong.”

So whether it’s a calling shaped by childhood experiences and beliefs, a psychological “high” hardwired into your brain, or way to feel grounded and connected in today’s technological, social yet isolated world, those who choose to follow service-centric paths find numerous benefits not only to those they serve, but to themselves, as well.


Bibliography

  1. Psychology Today (Return)