Happiness & Helping Others

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Chalice Lighting

As we gather here today
Let us slow down
From days of running from one thing to the next
From lists of what we must get done
From all the demands that keep us distracted
From losing track of our centre
Let the light of this flame illuminate what matters most
Let us be together
Let us help one another
Let us grow
Let us love

Reading from Erich Fromm

Giving is the highest expression of potency.
In the very act of giving, I experience my strength, my wealth, my power.
This experience of heightened vitality and potency fills me with joy.
I experience myself as overflowing, spending, alive, hence as joyous.
Giving is more joyous than receiving,
not because it is a deprivation,
but because in the act of giving lies the expression of my aliveness.

Reading: Cottonwood Trees by Lynn Ungar

The cottonwoods are
flinging themselves outward,
filling the air with spiraling flurries,
covering lawns in deepening drifts.
You could not call this generosity.
Like any being, they
let loose what they have
in order to survive,
in order that their lives might continue
in a new year's growth.
The more seeds they send out
on their lofted journeys
the greater the chance
for their kind to flourish.
There is no hesitation.
No one asks how much
they will give. Without words
they know so clearly
that everything depends
on what we call giving,
that which the world knows only as creation.

Message by Rev Andy Pakula

There once was a youngish woman who lived in a big city called London. She worked hard at her job. She didn’t have much free time and all her personal admin and cleaning her flat took up a great deal of the rest. But when she had a bit of time, she went to films, plays, museums, clubs, and pubs. She saw her friends, was careful not to show her mobile phone in public, dated occasionally, bought clothes, drank coffee, and basically lived a pretty typical London life. One morning - as she was commuting to work with several million other typical residents of London, a strange man walked up to her, caught her eye, and - with an American accent - asked ‘Are you Happy?’ She laughed awkwardly but politely, said yes, and turned and walked away toward her exit from the Tube station.

The question struck her though, and she thought about it as she followed the way-out signs up the stairs and onto the street. It occurred to her that she might not be particularly happy. Although things were pretty normal and not at all terrible in her life, she couldn’t say she was happy. During the seven-minute walk to work, she resolved to do something about it. She would treat herself. The following weekend, she bought some new clothes. She had a hot stone swedish shiatsu massage. She went to a spin class. And when Monday morning rolled around and she got to the spot in the tube station where she was asked ‘are you happy?’, that question came up in her mind again. Are you happy? And she realised that - although she was wearing new clothes, felt a bit more fit, and felt relaxed, she couldn’t say that she was happy.

She was so absorbed in thought as she approached the stairs to leave the station that she almost didn’t notice the man at the bottom of the steps struggling with a baby in a pushchair and a large suitcase. Hundreds of people walked by him, oblivious, but the woman offered her help. The anxious look on the man’s face eased and he said, ‘yes please.’ She grabbed the front of the pushchair and helped him get it to the stop and then she entertained the baby as the man went back for his suitcase. Although he was out of breath from wrangling the suitcase, he smiled broadly. He said a very sincere ‘thank you so much.’ She said ‘no worries’ and she walked off toward work. She didn’t notice how light she felt. She didn’t notice the spring in her step. She didn’t notice that she greeted her coworkers more cheerfully than usual until one of them mentioned it. And then, it occurred to her that she felt different.

She knew it wasn’t the clothes, the spin class, the massage, or even the 'double-shot grande mocha latte with salted caramel syrup, soy milk and a sprinkle of cocoa on top' that she treated herself to between her flat and the nearby tube station. Could it have been just the simple fact that she helped someone? Because she felt happy, and because she wanted to test if helping really was the thing, she left the office for lunch instead of staying at her desk. She reached the street and looked around. She was searching for opportunities to help others.

She flagged a cab for a person with limited mobility. When she was standing in the queue to pay for her lunch, she gave a man 50 pence when he didn’t have quite enough money to cover his bill. She gave directions to two foreign tourists, and suggested that the London Eye was a waste of money but that they might really appreciate the Tate Modern. When she left work, she was still buoyant from her lunchtime experiments and she recognised that helping was really making a difference to her. When she got to the tube station, she saw a man helping a woman with a pushchair down the stairs. When the man turned around, she was startled to see that it was the same man she had helped the day before - he looked at her with a big smile and went back looking for others to help.

And so it went, with helpers becoming happy, and happy people becoming helpers. Within a year, London was a different place entirely. Rough sleeping was a thing of the past. Charities recorded record donations. And - most remarkably - people actually smiled at strangers on the tube.

Unfortunately, my story was not entirely true. This one is true, though…

Carolyn Schwartz was a research professor at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and she was looking for ways to help patients with Multiple Sclerosis. She set up a trial system where MS patients would receive monthly peer-support phone calls from other MS patients. Schwartz was surprised when she reviewed the data. It was disappointing in some ways. Those receiving calls appeared to gain only a mild benefit. But totally unexpectedly, she noticed that the ones making the calls to support others were benefited much more. Those who offered support showed dramatic improvements in their quality of life—several times more so than those they were helping.

Helping helps the helper. Of course, if done right, it helps the helped too, but there is something very special about helping others that makes us happier. In fact, the benefit is not only to the helper’s happiness level. Helping others benefits overall health twice as much as aspirin protects against heart disease. One study showed that people 55 and older who volunteer for two or more organizations have a 44 percent lower likelihood of dying from any cause. This is a stronger effect than exercising four times a week. Volunteering is nearly as beneficial to our health as quitting smoking!

Of course, you can go too far. If you become overburdened with helping, it stops making you happy, just like exercising 20 times a week or taking too much aspirin is no longer good for you. The thing that strikes me is that - given all of the enormous known benefit of helping - given the fact that we can tell it makes us happier - why don’t we all do more of it? Why aren’t we always looking for ways to help? Why isn’t the end of my earlier story a reality? Why don’t we transform to a society of happy helpers?

I think the answer has to do with television and cake. What makes us happy is not necessarily what feels good in the moment. It is endlessly tempting to binge on Netflix and eat chocolate cake.  Exercise and broccoli are less alluring and less pleasurable in the moment but, ultimately, lead to more happiness. We have to push ourselves sometimes to do the things that will actually make us more healthy or more happy. Push yourself to help others. It pays off and doesn’t necessarily cause you to sweat - you might even be able to eat cake while you do it.

Finally, I suspect that some of you are thinking that I’m suggesting you help other people for selfish reasons. Well, yeah. It is an amazing thing that we can help to make a better world and feel happier for doing it. The question of whether or not there exists true altruism is one for philosophers. For practical people, the happy reality is that helping helps the helper.

Help more and be happy.

May it be so.

Closing Words

Sometimes we imagine that happiness is a zero-sum game,
That giving happiness to others reduces our own.
Happily - happiness is not like that.
Happiness grows in giver and receiver.
Helping helps the helper.
Help others.
Help yourself.
Be happy.