Score one for the prophets: research reveals link between service and happiness

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On Friday, January 20, 1961, newly-elected President John F. Kennedy stood before the nation, backdropped by the Capital’s snow-covered East Front and proclaimed, “ask not what your country can do for you-ask what you can do for your country.”

In doing so, he was passing on the notion of service that had been deeply-ingrained by his parents. In his mind…

Service was essential to being a responsible participant in society.

Nearly every spiritual tradition extends this concept beyond its impact upon your “earthly” life to its role in the path to transcendence. More simply put, Service is universally espoused as the path to God.

But, what if you’re not motivated by religion? Or the desire to help others? No problem, because now, we are learning…

Service may also play a pivotal role in your day-to-day happiness.

Recent research is showing us that people who regularly set aside time for participatory acts of service report higher levels of overall happiness during those acts and for a significant amount of time beyond them.

And, not surprisingly, those whose jobs are almost entirely defined by this pursuit sit boldly at the top of the job-satisfaction heap, according to the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center (NOPC).

In 2007, the NOPC polled 27,587 American workers, revealing…

The top-5 most gratifying jobs, along with the percentage of people who were very satisfied:

  • Clergy-87%
  • Firefighters-80%
  • Physical therapists-78%
  • Authors-74%
  • Special education teachers-70%

Notice, by the way, the top-“paying” professions are nowhere in sight.

The jobs on this list suggest that you feel good about yourself when you make others feel good. You have a sense of purpose, a sense of being appreciated and needed and that not only makes you feel good when you are doing it, but also when you reflect on the experience.

Nearly every spiritual and faith-based tradition, from Christianity to Judaism and Buddhism to Jainism, has, at its roots, the notion of service.

“If you want to feel better,” they say, “you’ve got to give yourself away.”

And, we seem to all publicly buy into that.

But, while our minds say, “cool,” our actions all too often say, “my ass!”

Which is a shame, because there’s now strong published research to support the notion that serving others, especially those less fortunate than us, really does go beyond helping others.

In his book, The Happiness Hypothesis, Jonathan Haidt reported the surprising results of an experiment designed to explore the impact of four different types of experiences on longer-term happiness.

Haidt told 350 students to engage in four activities, one self-indulgent pleasure, eating ice-cream, and three gratifications-attending a new lecture, doing something out of kindness for a friend, and calling or visiting someone to tell them how grateful they were for that persons’ friendship.

The results were quite surprising, service cultivates the most happiness.

Eating the ice-cream was enjoyable (duh), but the pleasure was fleeting. Attending the lecture ranked as the least enjoyable, unless you were someone with what acclaimed positive psychology visionary, Professor Martin Seligman calls a “signature-Strength” for curiosity and learning.

But, the bigger news was that the participants experienced more powerful and longer-lasting boosts to their states-of-mind from the acts of kindness than the acts of self-indulgence.

In fact, many people even carried their improved moods into the next day.

Maybe that helps explain the blissed-out expressions on the faces of so many Buddhist monks, whose essential teaching is that of compassion and kindness.

Even more recently, in October 2006, researchers at the National Institutes of Health’s Cognitive Neuroscience Section presented a neurological basis for the greater levels of contentment associated with acts of kindness or altruism versus acts of self-gratification.

Using a functional MRI (fMRI) to measure the brains electrical activity during certain types of activities and thought processes, they discovered two fascinating things.

While participants anonymously donated to or opposed real charitable organizations related to major societal causes. We show that the mesolimbic reward system, [which motivates people to seek more of what triggers it], is engaged by donations in the same way as when monetary rewards are obtained. Furthermore, medial orbitofrontal-subgenual and lateral orbitofrontal areas, which also play key roles in more primitive mechanisms of social attachment and aversion, specifically mediate decisions to donate or to oppose societal causes. Remarkably, more …[of this reward system]… is distinctively recruited when altruistic choices prevail over selfish material interests.

Translation – there is actually a strong neurological preference toward giving.

It makes us feel better and, in doing so, makes us want to do more of it once begun. Who knew?

So, whether out of faith, a genuine sense or responsibility to your community, the notion that you exist within and are responsible to something far greater than yourself or even the desire to enhance your own life, begin the process today.

Go beyond giving money and give of yourself.

The question is how?

Here are 10 ways to begin to offer service to get you started:

And, if you’d like to take it a step further, here is a fairly comprehensive list of worldwide organizations that coordinate volunteer activities:

These organizations offer opportunities for more-deliberate, involved volunteering. But, reality is, the notion of giving your attention to others can happen every day on much simpler, more tangible levels, as Happiness Project editor, Gretchen Rubin reveals.

You can start with baby steps, then work your way up.

Of course, as always…

Please share your ideas for service in the comments below.

Lets make this a giant list! And, if you’ve participated in any type of service, go ahead and share your experience, I’d love to hear more about it!

As you explore making your own life come alive, keep the notion of participatory kindness or service on a back burner. In doing so, you’ll not only contribute to the lives of those you serve, you’ll make your life more fulfilled along the way.

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13 responses

13 responses to “Score one for the prophets: research reveals link between service and happiness”

  1. Mark Riffey says:

    No question about it, Jonathan.

    Sometimes, it’s easier to do “those volunteer things” than real work. It’s easier because it can almost be like an addictive drug. Volunteer buzz, anyone? 🙂

    Thanks for the info on that survey. A new client of mine is a PT, and that info about job satisfaction fits in perfectly with some of the stuff we’re doing.


  2. Jonathan Fields says:

    @ Mark – Yeah, it’s amazing that researchers are literally discovering not only a behavioral, but a chemical reason behind the desire to volunteer or serve others. If you’ve never done anything similar before, like a drug, you probably don’t get it, because you haven’t gotten that first “bump.” But, once you do, it takes hold of you, for sure!

  3. Stacey says:

    That’s why I love my work. I provide a service that helps people feel good, and in turn I feel good for doing that. That is the ultimate job satisfaction, and something I never had before going out on my own.

    Aside from business I have spent time as a Big Sister, which was incredibly rewarding. I recently applied to be a mentor with an organization called Strong Women, Strong Girls. I’ll be mentoring a college age woman on things like leadership, stress, communication, confidence building, etc.

    Just today I met with someone from my local office of the Arthritis Foundation to learn more about opportunities with them and now I’ll be presenting the pre-walk warm up at their May event in Massachusetts as well as volunteering on the committee that puts together the event. I am also going to have further discussion about becoming a coach for their marathon training program.

    I’ve always loved helping people and did a lot of volunteer work in college. It feels good to be back in the volunteer game again with organizations I really believe in.

  4. Stacey says:

    And I just remembered this quote I had seen a few years ago:

    The True Meaning of Life
    “We are all visitors on this planet. We are here for 90 or 100 years at the very most. During that period we must try to do something good, something useful, with our lives. If you contribute to other people’s happiness, you will find the true goal, the true meaning of life.”

    – H.H. the 14th Dalai Lama

  5. Mark Dykeman says:

    Donate blood, if you are able to do so. It can help save a life.

  6. Chris says:

    Service is definitely one of the keys to happiness. I used to be a personal trainer and found it extremely gratifying, however I found that always having at least a few pro-bono clients made it 100x more gratifying.

    Service is the backbone of what keeps a lot of drug addicts and alcoholics sober, what brings a sense of purpose to a great many business owners and what makes moms across the world some of the best people to be around.

    When I was in my twenties I was about as selfish as they come and miserable, it’s amazing how helping a few others can change everything

    Thanks Jonathan for another stellar post!

  7. Jayne says:

    Hello Jonathan – thanks for this article – very good! I am a strong believer in the power of service to transform lives. For me it is a path of spirit – karma yoga – sacred service. I am a director of a homeless shelter and this is my passion and love. We use 90 volunteers each week and my guess is that there’s probably a shelter in most cities that would welcome more volunteers!

  8. Sharon says:

    I agree that service unto others is a wonderful thing. But let us remember the volunteers too. There will be times when volunteering, giving up our time, or donating money may become “expected” of us then it isn’t about selfless giving anymore. Of course in my experience, this usually happens in the religious groups (of all kinds). I enjoyed some of the times of volunteering of projects, giving up my time to do something that will better the lives of others. It makes me feel that there is indeed a purpose in my life. I did not enjoy the times when I was expected to do such because I have always done so. Volunteering is a great thing but a message to the administrators of volunteers – just because someone is volunteering, don’t take them for granted.

  9. Jonathan Fields says:

    @ Stacey – great quote, thanks for sharing your own experiences along with it!

    @ Mark – Yes, it’s often as simple as giving blood. so many opps when you really start to look

    @ Chris – Great idea, when I train yoga teachers, I actually often suggest setting aside a small percentage of their available time for service or to work with clients on a donation-basis. These are often the most gratifying parts of the profession!

    @ Jayne – Wow, 90 volunteers, that’s incredible! I am curious, is that about how many people it usually takes or is 90 people unusually large/small?

    @ Sharon – Great point, volunteering really works best for everyone when it is offered from the heart, rather than a sense of external demand or expectation.

  10. Jayne says:

    Jonathan – 90 volunteers a week is what it takes to run the shelter. We have 5 paid staff. We’ve been an emergency winter shelter for the past 2 winters and then just bought a building in the off-season and so are open year-round now (opened again on Nov. 1). We currently serve 125 people per night (men, women, families with children). 90 volunteers seems like a lot to me as I’m the one organizing or managing them! About 1/3 volunteer on a regular basis – once a week or twice a month. Some groups volunteer and will take all the swing shifts for one night a week or twice per month. We are an interfaith shelter which is work I love! It is truly a beautiful experience to have people of all faiths (some quite diverse combinations of people) and no-faith (or people of good conscience) working side by side. I’ve also always had our guests volunteer on the ‘shelter support team’ and then our “graduated” guests as well. I’ve seen those on this team blossom over time. Each night we have 4 – 5 team members assisting with the operations (it’s a team of 8 so they work 3-5 nights per week each).

    Sharon – good reminder to those of us managing volunteers!

  11. Patrick Badstibner says:

    Another tremondous post, Thanks. There is as you said significant proof now that not only service but giving has tremondous benefits. My family has a term they call Patisms one of my favorites is build your business by giving it away.

    In my first business I agressively looked for ways to not only service my customer better,by being a trusted referral source. But also ways to agressively put money in others hands, this is an age old prinicipal of outsourcing. Yet all I ever asked for was to treat my customer good.

    Another effective way to give is mentoring, those who are not quite as far a long as you maybe on the road.

    Thanks for giving the time to put together a well researched and thought out article


  12. Jonathan Fields says:

    @ Jayne – wow, that’s amazing, I never realized what a serious operation a shelter was to run. I have to admit, I’m somewhat in awe!

    @ Pat – Thanks, man. Totally agree about mentoring, this is one of my focuses these days. I love doing it.

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