Americans are not happy. It’s true. We’re constantly searching for happiness, thinking about happiness, evaluating our happiness. We invest more in self-help and happiness boosting books, tools, materials, and resources than people in other countries around the world.
Author Ruth Whippman talked about this phenomenon in her recent interview, and her new book. Why? Why are we, as a culture, so driven to find something that is seemingly so elusive?
And why aren’t we more successful?
This is what I think, speaking generically: As a culture, we have too much. We have too much leisure, or too much stress; too much stuff, and not enough that’s meaningful in our lives. Too much of the wrong focus, not enough of what we need.
(Please understand…this is directed at no one in particular, and all of us in general. If you’re an exception to what I’m saying here, wonderful! Please don’t feel offended by these broad opinions.)
For example, in past eras people in this country were often happy with small treats, simple pleasures. They were satisfied because they didn’t have much, so even the small blessings and joys of life were appreciated and remembered. Simple traditions of life were revered and anticipated each year.
Even people from the Baby Boom generation fit this generalization. You’ve probably seen memes that reference kids growing up playing outside until dark, living simple and tech-free lives, and celebrating community and connectedness.
I’m not romanticizing the past. There were negatives in those days too, but the pace was slower, and people seemed more connected.
Today, in this country, most of us are saturated with stuff, treats, special occasions, and possessions. Nothing holds value. As soon as we have what we want this moment, we move on to the next thing. And the next thing, ad infinitum.
Comparison has been the death of our contentment.
Advertising, marketing, social media, ever-present shopping opportunities, an ever-evolving, next generation of things-to-want keeps us feeling hungry for more, yet satisfied with nothing.
We glorify busy, yet we’re often busy with the wrong things. When we’re overwhelmed with busy-ness, we glorify leisure, but too much leisure leads to boredom, and a hunger to fill our lives with something meaningful. We keep looking in all the wrong places: more stuff, another trip to the mall, the latest self-help trend, all sorts of recreation and sports. There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of this, except that the happiness we find doesn’t last, if these are our resources.
I believe the real secret to happiness lies in serving others. Serve something bigger than self, bigger than work, bigger than recreation. Good things come from leisure and recreation, but we need, even require, balance to feel good about ourselves, to feel “happy.” It’s important that we serve others, not just ourselves; our efforts have to go beyond self-help to have lasting impact.
Get busy with the right kind of things, and you’ll find yourself happier and more fulfilled, instead of feeling empty, wondering how to find peace and contentment (which are components of what we call happiness).
You may be thinking: I work, have kids, don’t have enough time as it is…how can I add more to my schedule?
If you have children, I suggest you look at them as a place to start. Choose activities they’re involved with already, or something you’d like to see them do…and volunteer to help coordinate plans, events, food, rides, prizes, coaching or tutoring, and see how far you go. Volunteer in your child’s school. Pick an opportunity or two and dive in.
If you’re looking for ways to serve adult communities, volunteer at a retirement home, a pet shelter, a food bank, or a soup kitchen. If you’re part of a church, find ways to support the work of the congregation. Join a civic organization and get involved with their community efforts. Get involved with grass roots political work.
If you can’t volunteer or serve in a conventional way, maybe there are less visible paths for you? Do you have a gift you can share from your home? One of my aunts sews with a group of ladies for a children’s home in an impoverished country. They make clothing and simple household items and ship to the home each year. There’s no big visible connection here, but there’s a lot of service offered to children in need.
You may find service through your work. My parents spent a lifetime serving in ministry. My in-laws spent 20 years mentoring college students through a Christian Student Center. My sister-in-law and brother-in-law provide marriage counseling and therapy; my daughter teaches math to middle-schoolers; my husband is a physician.
All of these positions are paid, but they’re also professions of service.
To some extent, whatever you do for work provides service, but I’m specifically suggesting that offering service in a human-to-human way resonates differently, and fills us up…emotionally and spiritually.
There’s another benefit to service: the person serving grows and learns from the experience. Leadership skills are enhanced and broadened. Empathy flourishes.
A recent article in The Atlantic, “What America Lost as Women Entered the Workforce,” describes this perfectly (though I think this applies equally to men):
As women have taken greater positions of leadership in the United States, they have also left a leadership vacuum behind them. In middle-class, highly educated communities, women may be busier and more tired than their mothers and grandmothers once were, but they mostly figure out ways to advocate for their kids at school-board meetings or volunteer to chaperone a class trip to the zoo. The people who have suffered most aren’t white and well-off; they’re lower income, poorly educated, and largely disconnected from the rich network of membership-based associations that used to provide both a local sense of community and a national voice in politics. Women in these positions have lost access to one of their only means of gaining leadership skills. And while many of their educated, wealthier peers now have alternatives to the suffocating housewife’s life that so enraged Betty Friedan seven decades ago, some experience it as an opposite kind of suffocation: a never-ending, ladder-climbing work life, the height of which is making money for someone else rather than building a world in which they’re invested. (Emphasis mine, SG)
I believe the benefits of serving others apply to everyone. When we give of ourselves, we invest in other people, emotionally, and that resonates in a different way than merely contributing financially. For one thing, when we’re personally involved, we see the needs and problems first hand. Disadvantaged children aren’t statistics, they have names and faces. Regulars at food banks are real people. The polite walls that insulate are removed.
I’ve seen this myself, working in small rural clinics in Alaska. The patients who come in are often from very different backgrounds than mine. I have little in common with people who live on remote islands with generator power, fish for a living, and are often dependent on community and government support to make ends meet. Meeting people with such different lives broadens me, teaches me, enriches me. I’m not quite so insulated as I once was. I’ve seen lifestyles I couldn’t have imagined before I moved here. The point is not that my lifestyle or theirs is better. The point is that we’re different. But seeing life here, understanding the challenges first hand, I get it.
And that’s why showing up in person is so valuable. When we see for ourselves, in person, we connect with people and situations in ways that cause action, cause us to engage, cause us to care. Cause us to want to serve, to make a difference.
And making a difference in the lives of others makes our lives different. It make all the difference.
I challenge you to find someone who is really living a life of engaged service, who doesn’t reflect a different level of contentment and happiness than the average person consumed by self-interest.
It works like a charm. Service is engagement, and engagement with others will take you out of your shell, take your mind off yourself, and provide meaning in place of stuff and busy-ness.
If you aren’t serving others in some way, I challenge you to try it. Add an opportunity or two, see how you feel.
If you’re doing a little, maybe do a little more? Our world is in need, and the solution to so many of our problems is simply each of us, doing what we can, planted where we are, giving, serving, loving, and making a difference.
And when we do that, we’ll find the happiness we’re searching for, hidden, like a gem, in the unlikeliest of places…other people.
Question: Would you share ways you serve? I’m interested to know of unusual venues or opportunities to serve. Leave a comment, or email me at Sheila@storyrevisioned.com
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