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:
- Physical therapists-78%
- 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:
- Help homeless folks and families, from meals to job-training
- Volunteer at a senior center
- Offer business advice to small businesses through SCORE
- Become a big brother/sister
- Make a child’s wish come true
- Give time to local park-service
- Take a volunteer vacation
- Donate time to Meals On Wheels
- Volunteer for hurricane/disaster relief
- Help build houses for Habitat for Humanity
And, if you’d like to take it a step further, here is a fairly comprehensive list of worldwide organizations that coordinate volunteer activities:
- Involvement Volunteers Association Inc. (IVI)
- Experience Corps
- Global Volunteer Network
- Online Volunteering service
- Monster.com Volunteering
- One Brick
- Volunteer Match
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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