The following is an excerpt from “Things That Matter: Overcoming Distraction to Pursue a More Meaningful Life” by Joshua Becker (Waterbrook), released this month.
Dion Mitchell grew up near Toledo, Ohio, in comfortable circumstances. In his childhood and youth, he did not often come into contact with poor people. Nor did Dion’s family have a consistent pattern of serving the needy. But every Thanksgiving, for reasons he wasn’t even able to articulate, they would deliver meals to poor families in their small town who were short on food.
When telling me about his experience, Dion did some quick calculation in his head.
“I think we only did this for about six years, and it took maybe two hours each time. So that’s 12 hours total out of my life. But do you know what, Joshua? Visiting those families on Thanksgiving is one of the most vivid memories I have of my childhood. Seeing how other people lived and knowing what it felt like to give help prepared me for serving others in bigger ways when I was grown up.”
Serving changes us.
Around the world or just around the block in our own hometown, these simple acts of service that prompt change in our hearts don’t have to be extravagant. Again, science shows us this.
Emily Esfahani Smith, author of “The Power of Meaning,” says in a newspaper article, “The idea that a meaningful life must be or appear remarkable is not only elitist but also misguided. . . . The most meaningful lives, I’ve learned, are often not the extraordinary ones. They’re the ordinary ones lived with dignity.”
Emily cites research in her article. For example, one study showed that adolescents who did household chores felt a stronger sense of purpose than those who did not. The reason was that the teens felt they were contributing to something bigger than themselves, namely their family. Another study found that cheering up a friend creates meaning in one’s life. So does seeing one’s occupation as serving one’s community. Selfless living results in greater overall life satisfaction.
Smith concludes, “A good life is a life of goodness—and that’s something anyone can aspire to, no matter their dreams or circumstances.”
This is a good reminder. Things that matter aren’t necessarily grand and remote goals. They can be simple things that are within the reach of us all. But they’re still the best way to spend our days on this earth, causing us no regret when we come to look back on them.
Satirist P.J. O’Rourke said, “Everybody wants to save the Earth; nobody wants to help Mom do the dishes.” Let’s help Mom.
The Joy of Helping
In our Things That Matter Survey, we asked, “Which generally gives you greater joy: fulfilling your own desires or helping other people?” I was very curious to see what the responses to this question would be. How widespread is the perception that service beats selfishness in delivering happiness? I was thrilled to see that a clear majority—60 percent—answered “helping others.” I bet you’d say that too.
Empirical data backs up the intuitive sense many of us have that helping others has the power to help us. Let me share just two more research results on this topic to further confirm your suspicion about the importance of living a selfless life.
Investigators at Columbia University were interested in finding out whether helping other people with their emotional well-being also benefited the helpers. So they conducted a study using an anonymous online platform. Participants shared about their own stressful life events. They could also provide emotional support to other participants by giving feedback, advice, and encouragement.
And the outcome?
An independent psychologist, commenting on this study for Psychology Today, said:
“The results showed that helping others to regulate their emotions predicted better emotional and cognitive outcomes for those participants who were giving the help. Moreover, because heightened levels of self-focused attention are common in depression, the more people helped others, the more their helping behavior predicted a reduction in their own depression, thanks to the use of reappraisal in their own daily lives. Follow-up analyses further showed that this increase in reappraisal in people’s lives also affected their mood and subjective happiness.”
In short, encouraging emotional recovery in others helps us improve our own emotional health.
Then in another study, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh gave participants a choice to complete a task that benefited themselves, a charity, or a particular friend in need. Afterward, the researchers used brain scans to look for differences based on the choices the volunteers made.
The most noticeable result showed up in the brain scans of persons who chose to help a particular friend. These scans not only showed increased activity in two reward centers of their brains, but also revealed a decrease in activity in three other areas that control blood pressure and inflammation in response to stress. Or in other words, these people were both happier and calmer as a result of helping another individual.
The evidence is clear that selfish pursuits don’t bring the happiness we expect. Now we know what does.
We need to serve others if we’re going to reach our full potential. And God knows the world needs us to serve.
Joshua Becker is the author of several USA Today bestselling books as well as “Things That Matter: Overcoming Distractions to Pursue a More Meaningful Life.” He’s the founder of Becoming Minimalist, a website dedicated to inspiring others to find more life by owning less. Visit BecomingMinimalist.com and @joshua_becker.