Being of service was not in the forefront of my thoughts as a child of the opulent 80’s. Even with hippy artist parents, much of their influence was lost in the looming shadows cast by Reaganomics. I rebelled and found refuge in the punk rock scene. On the surface it looked like nonconformity but in retrospect, a true rebellious act during those times would have been a pivot towards self-compassion and helping others. It was still far better than the influential media and entertainment culture around the Reagan era which was ripe with materialism and self-interest. Michael J. Fox’s über-conservative character on Family Ties and Madonna’s hit “Material Girl” were far departures from the entertainment icons and artists of the 60’s and 70's. Contrary to Oliver Stone’s intent, the movie Wall Street glorified self-interest through the character of Gordon Gecko. In the film, the underhanded financier played by Michael Douglas proudly proclaims, “Greed is good.” This became a sort of motto for conducting business in the 80's and the resulting excessive, self-focused lifestyles.
Getting ahead at the expense of others feels intuitively contrary to compassion and being of service. It’s no surprise that I didn’t see many examples or hear stories of attaining lasting joy and fulfillment through kindness and generosity. Although it might take a little digging through the surface layers of current media, we live in an amazing time regarding the ways we can all be part of this movement. At its core, a widespread interest in self-compassion is greatly responsible for the rekindling of altruism. This is so simply because it becomes very difficult to love others if you don’t love yourself first. I personally felt stuck around the concept of giving because I was in a perpetual state of feeling as though I never had enough. Like many people, I had a deeply embedded belief that I needed to be in a position of excess in order to give back. I still feel the pull of it to this day. Of course, this is just a matter of perception. The shift started with seeing the collective experience as part of a continuous pilgrimage. Instead of trying to get to some elusive place where I could begin to be of service, being of service became part of the journey itself.
This perception shift started with seeing things as they actually were. By looking at the areas of my life through the lens of gratitude as opposed to scarcity, it became easier to embrace the concept of giving. Using the bucket categories of health, wealth and relationships, I found that serving others heavily influenced all three. As it turns out, there have been quite a few studies that prove this very concept. A paper by Suzanne Richards and her colleagues at the University of Exeter Medical School in the UK analyzed 40 studies from the past 20 years on how volunteering and health were related. The results showed that volunteering is associated with lower depression, increased well-being, and a 22% reduction in the risk of dying.
Here are other ways giving can positively influence the major areas of your life. For 21 Days, pick one of these categories a day and give it a try. If you do more than one act, kudos. But just a single one per day will build your base of happiness in just three weeks.
Health (physical): Although you can begin giving with just a few mouse clicks, active and involved volunteer work requires getting out there. Whether you are building shelters or ladling soup, the effects will be far more beneficial to your body than watching television from your sofa.
Health (inner): Helping people feels good. At the end of the day, that’s what most of us are going through all daily trials and tribulations for: to experience happiness. Other studies show a relationship between volunteering and increased self-esteem. Relaying back to physical health, happy people have been consistently shown to be healthier and live longer.
Wealth (spiritual): Most religions have strong tenets around serving others, and volunteer work helps validate these beliefs. However, you don’t have to be religious to find spiritual purpose. If there is a cause that captures your heart, you will undoubtedly feel connectivity to something bigger than yourself by getting involved.
Wealth (financial): Time is money, or so we believe. Since time is the one thing we all have equal amounts of every day, our perception of how it passes can make all the difference as to how we spend it. Researchers from universities including Harvard Business School found that when a person volunteers their time, it makes them feel more efficient and less stressed. The studies reveled that when people gave their time away, it felt as though they had more of it.
Wealth (personal growth): Learning new skills and widening your base of knowledge is a common byproduct of volunteering. The serendipitous discovery of something you would have not ordinarily been exposed to can be helpful to your personal and professional life.
Relationships (all!): Volunteering is an opportunity to build and strengthen all the relationships in your life. People regularly connect and build lasting friendships when involved in the same cause. It is also common to make a romantic connection through a purpose-driven activity such as volunteering. If you are hoping to attract a giving and caring partner, volunteering will help by starting you down the path of cultivating those very attributes in yourself. Families that volunteer together also become fortified through the common goal and working as a team. As a parent, there are few better ways to teach compassion, kindness, caring and understanding. Teaching by example is by far the most effective way to build these pillars of character in your children.
Here are a few ways to get you on the path to serving others:
Intention + Action: Where do you feel help is needed? What resonates with your heart? Align your intentions with action. Do something small immediately to start the forward momentum. If there’s any possible way to start today as opposed to tomorrow, then seize it now.
Becoming Content with Sacrifice: There will always be some level of personal sacrifice involved. Altruism will either cost you time or money which means you are giving one or both up in exchange for self-interest. When you truly expect nothing in return for what you give, your heart will open to a new kind of joy and well being.
Eyes Wide Open: There are more people that can use your help than you might think. Your home, community and workplace are good places to start. The first step is to be aware of those that may benefit from your generosity.
Starting Small: Volunteering at a homeless shelter or taking an active role in a for-cause organization might be surprisingly difficult. There are often wait lists and interviews which require a bit of patience and followup. Don’t let that deter you from taking steps today. You can offer to babysit. Create a care package for someone who is sick or having a hard time. Donate food to your local shelter. Send a kind email or letter. Teach somebody about something you’re good at. Sometimes the best place to start is by being a great listener, smiling more and being kind.
Surround Yourself With Kind & Generous People: You fill find many likeminded people through your volunteering efforts, but seeking out giving personalities in your day-to-day relationships is incredibly helpful. These might very well be the people you are already attracted to since they are more likely to be positive, happy and easy to be around. I am fortunate enough to be married to my greatest inspiration. After spending over half a decade as a very unhappy corporate litigator, my wife was consumed by alcoholism. After going through a program and therapy, a large part of her recovery revolved around being of service. That healing component led to a complete career change and she is now an amazing therapist and meditation teacher. Even as a sleep-deprived new mother, she still routinely goes out of her way to help others, as it has become an essential part of her core purpose and joy of life.