A s children, we are taught that it is better to give than it is to receive, but often the message becomes garbled on the path to adulthood. When thinking of how to increase our personal happiness, we tend to think in black and white terms: “I must be selfless,” or “I must focus on myself completely.” The former is almost impossible to achieve, and the latter does nothing but send us into downward spirals of self-absorption.
Cherishing others is a stepping stone to leading a happy and fulfilling life.
We forget that we don’t need to be either of these things; we simply need to be who we’ve always been, but with a bit more palpable compassion. Giving back and helping out is beneficial for all parties involved. You get that “warm, fuzzy feeling” from doing a good deed, and at the end of the day, something is achieved.
The Dalai Lama describes this as being “wisely selfish”: you are thinking of yourself when giving back, but you are not thinking only of yourself. According to him, cherishing others is a stepping stone to leading a happy and fulfilling life.
Being absorbed with your own needs is detrimental because it pushes you to focus only on the occurrences within your own world, including the negative ones. You may have a great week of self-encouragement spurred by a well-done report at work, but the minute a colleague is praised instead of you, you’ll be sent into a frenzy of questioning and disappointment.
Conversely, focusing on others allows you to escape the negatives in your own world. By being there for others and making a difference, you are allowing yourself to become a part of something bigger than a day-to-day work schedule. Helping others allows you to see the value of your own life, even on days that feel particularly draining or confusing.
Studies show that the reward section of the brain is triggered when people give to charity. This “helper’s high” is likened to the feeling we get after eating chocolate or having sex. While it’s counterproductive to force yourself to give back as another item on your to-do list, thinking of it as a reward gives it the potential to turn a difficult day into a great one.
Figure out what makes your heart full
Committing to three simple steps will make this lifestyle a reality and bring you the happiness you deserve.
1. Pick a cause you’re passionate about.
It is hard to think of charity as a fun activity if you’re doing something that doesn’t fulfill or intrigue you. If you’re a nature lover, it makes sense to sign up for a day of service cleaning up a park or neighborhood. Conversely, cleaning up a park can be the worst thing in the world for someone who doesn’t love being outside. Get to know yourself and figure out what makes your heart full, whether it is reading to children, working at a soup kitchen, or beautifying a school.
2. Give your time.
Simply knowing what you want to do is not enough to reap the rewards of being wisely selfish. Depending on your schedule, you can make charity work a regular, planned event in your calendar. Not only will you be triggering the reward section of your brain more often, but you will also build relationships within the community you are giving back to. By becoming a part of someone else’s routine or schedule, you can fortify your sense of purpose and importance.
3. Don’t feel guilty.
There will be days where you’re not able to do the charity work you’ve planned, and that’s okay! Pressuring yourself will do nothing but send you into that downward spiral of self-absorption again. Be realistic with your goals, and reflect on the good you have done when you can’t make it to every single soup kitchen shift. After all, you are doing this for you. Instead of setting expectations, set a wish list. It will keep you excited for future prospects while quieting the part of you that wants to nag — nobody gets everything they ask for on a wish list.
This piece originally appeared on Shine.
Originally published at medium.com