How Helping Others Can Help You Find Meaning

It might seem counterintuitive to think that helping other people will help you in any way. But Jonathan Haidt has probably researched this topic more than anyone, and he’s come to a simple conclusion: People with the most meaningful lives tend to participate or contribute to things that are bigger than themselves. There are a lot of theories on why that is, but one thing’s for sure — if you want to have a meaningful life, you shift your focus to helping others in a balanced way.


Are You Asking Yourself, “What’s Missing?”

So often, people fail to stop and think about what they really want in life. We grow up, go to school, get into college, earn a degree, and find a job because that’s what we’re supposed to do. The next thing we know, we’re looking in the mirror, wondering what happened to the last 10, 20, or 30 years.


This kind of automatic decision-making can lead to an unfulfilling life. Many people who take this route end up feeling like something is missing because they spend years pursuing their own self-interests without contributing to other people or causes. What’s missing is a sense of being a part of something bigger than themselves.


Get Outside Yourself

I had a professor (for organizational behavior, no less) who once rambled on about how he got an office that was 16 square feet bigger than his colleagues’ while he was still a junior professor. That extra 16 square feet went right to his head.


This is a classic example of material possessions achieving nothing more than swelling an ego. “Things” don’t help anyone but you, and they are ultimately unsatisfying. There is certainly a need to make money for provision of food and a home, but shifting your focus off your own ego and on to ways you can contribute to others’ happiness will make you happier in the end.


That professor was proud of himself for attaining his slightly larger office, but it didn’t take much time for the glory of 16 square feet to wear off. We all get an ego boost from small things at times, but it’s important to keep yourself from being tricked into believing that those things will have a lasting effect.


Make Someone’s Day!

If being other-focused is somewhat new to you, it’s best to start small. In fact, even if you decide to make a career change or a big commitment to help others or you’ve been doing it for years, these small actions can instill a greater sense of meaning in your life.


Acknowledge People

During any given day, you might see a bus driver, a mail carrier, a neighbor, a barista, a cashier, your co-workers, and dozens of other people. Give them a smile, ask how they’re doing, and wish them a happy day. In other words, value and appreciate them — don’t merely overlook them on your way to something else.


Keep Track of Kind Actions

I’m a big believer in changing the things you can track and measure. One trick I like comes from Tibetan monks. Put a few rocks, pebbles, or coins in your left pocket and, every time you do a good deed, transfer one rock to your right pocket. Hopefully, by the end of the day, your right pocket will be full.


Complete a 30-Day Challenge

Most people have good intentions and want to be better people. They would love to call their moms more, send their wives flowers, and buy the next guy in line a coffee. But life and routine get in the way. A great way to overcome your daily slump and start good habits is to complete a 30-day challenge of kindness. For example, spend a dollar a day on someone else or write a thank-you note for someone each day. It could be any small act of kindness. This is a simple but life-changing challenge.


Do the “3 Good Things” Exercise

Martin Seligman researched this exercise, and it has proven to have lasting effects on people’s levels of happiness. At the end of the day, ask yourself what three good things happened that day, as well as why you think they happened. By reliving those experiences, you’ll sleep better and get your brain thinking about doing good things for others with more regularity.


Take Small Actions with Great Intentions

For me, this means believing that with every interaction I have with someone, no matter how small, I have an opportunity to make his or her day. This is especially true when that other person is doing a mundane job and sees hundreds of people walk by every day without so much as a “thank you.”


If you think people choose to help others because they are overflowing with so much happiness they just can’t hold it in, think again. Most people are made happy by helping others, not the other way around. And it’s true for everyone: The less you focus on yourself and the more you focus on the people around you, the more fulfilling and meaningful your life will be.