How and How Not to Find Happiness By Helping Others
Humans have been trying to make themselves happy probably for thousands of years, maybe millions. As you’ve probably noticed, we’re still not very good at it.
In the MeaningOfLife.com Tame Your Mind, Love Your Life Workshop, we present many ways to do that. But another option is to just "give up," without really giving up. Entering through the side door might be the best way to put it.
I once heard a wise man from the East say, “The best way to be miserable is to think only about yourself.”
Springsteen said we're "Born to Run." Steppenwolf said we're "Born to Be Wild." Evolutionary psychology say we're Born to be Dissatisfied.
Our ancestors survived and passed along their genes to us not by being happy, but rather never being satisfied with the status quo. They wanted more food, better shelter and to make as many little ancestors as possible in their very short lifespans. Modern civilization formed at lightning speed and our genes didn't -- and won't -- catch up.
So as the wise man from the East pointed to, focusing only on what we want -- including being happy -- isn't going to satisfy us for very long.
There's a good antidote: Living your life primarily in the spirit of helping others is one of the ultimate secrets to bringing meaning and happiness into your life. But it's a delicate art; not nearly as straightforward as it sounds.
But if you don’t do it right, it will backfire, make it unfulfilling for you, and unhelpful to the subject of your benevolence.
What are the keys?
1. Help people resolve their issues. Don’t own their issues.
To sincerely help someone, you must have empathy, identify with their thoughts and emotions. But it’s a fine line. Kind-hearted, loving people with the best intentions can go too far, to everyone’s detriment. Especially parents. Like me.
When I see my kids struggling or suffering – or having “issues,” as all kids do – I have a powerful urge not just to help, but to fix. To step into painful situations that they should resolve themselves, rather than just give them my best advice. To make them see it my way again and again, for their own good, in my opinion. To somehow inhabit their hearts and minds and adjust their thoughts and emotions. In a word, to control.
That's owning someone’s issues, a trap I constantly try to avoid. Anyone can fall into it, with a family member, friend, colleague, mentee, etc.
Why does owning someone’s issues block happiness? Because it makes it about you, when the whole point should be to make it about them. You want something to happen, to change, and you know on some level that it will make you feel better if it does. You want your frustration to go away, to feel relieved of that burden of control when someone does what you advise. There goes your empathy.
Without you realizing it, your motivation has shifted away from just helping the other person. That’s when you could end up making both of you miserable, by injecting your own negative emotion and impatience.
2. Don’t focus on what they think of you
If you’re trying to help someone partially so they’ll like you better or respect you more, well, that’s making it about you, too. You want something out of it. That ulterior motive might also compromise the advice you give and influence how it's received.
3. Don’t see their issues or behavior as areflection on you
It’s a classic narcissistic tendency to want whomever you try to help — say, a kid or someone who reports to you at work — to do what you suggest so that you look good. You want to improve your image or self-image as a generous person who helps people. Why does that detract from the pure joy of helping others? Because it’s making it about you
4. Don’t state or imply that they owe you anything and thus should do what you say
That’s really making it about you.
When you truly take yourself out of the picture by avoiding these pitfalls, your tone will be kinder. It will lack an “edge.” Whomever you’re advising will sense that your advice is strictly about them. They will also be more receptive to your suggestions, knowing they’re not self-serving. They’ll consider you more generous. They’ll like you more.
You’ll feel happier because you’ll experience the purity of true kindness and helpfulness.
So the next time you’re in the process of helping someone, especially when you’re feeling angry or frustrated, just ask yourself this throughout:
Is it still all about them?