Have you ever done volunteer work like building a Habitat for Humanity house, planting a community garden, or working in a soup kitchen?
If so, didn’t that leave you feeling fantastic?
Can you still recall that sensation if you close your eyes and think about it?
Researchers say that the sense of meaning we get when we do something kind for others is one of the most extraordinary emotions humans can experience.
My son, Max, and I reflected this week on some of the volunteer work we’ve done over the years, and we can vouch for these findings.
Max did 100 hours of community service in high school, many of them in the Alexandra and Soweto townships around Johannesburg, South Africa, where we lived.
When he looks back on it, he remembers the arduous work and how challenging it was to squeeze in his service hours between academics, sports, and a social life.
But he also has warm memories of the connections he made with other people and the feeling of doing something valuable for others.
He said it even helped him learn about the harsh realities some people live with, which gave him a sense of humility and an appreciation for how lucky he was.
What valuable life lessons, huh?
His memories bear out another research finding: that even though the actual work might not be what we’d call fun—in his case, for example, picking up trash, working in an orphanage, cleaning poop off the glass walls of the zoo’s gorilla enclosure—having done it feels good.
This is what differentiates meaning from happiness:
- Happiness feels good while it’s happening but is temporary
- Meaning can last a lifetime, even if we don’t love everything about it while we do it.
I can’t even count the number of hours I spent volunteering at a school in the Orange Farm township, but I do know I loved it.
It was hard work preparing positive psychology programs for grades K-12 and delivering them with no teacher training. Still, I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything.
It also led to the pro bono work I now do in my professional practice, for South Africa’s Realema Teacher Intern Programme.
I provide coaching to graduates from township high schools earning their teaching degrees while working as interns in some of the country’s best private schools. The challenges they face include moving away from home, adjusting to the world of work, learning to teach while studying full-time, feeling confident, and building good relationships.
So Now What?
The capacity to build meaning into our lives is available to each of us, no matter our physical abilities, intelligence, financial status, or demographic markers like age, gender, or culture.
Offering others a smile, a kind word, your time, or your skills can feel good in the moment and for years afterward.
The desire to leave the world a better place can be even stronger for people who’ve had a wake-up call about how precious life is—those who’ve survived an accident or serious illness, for example. For them, another avenue for building meaning can come from supporting others who are going through the same ordeal.
Set yourself a goal to do one meaningful thing this week, and then come back here and share your experience in the comments. Let me know what you did and how it felt, during and/or after.
I can’t wait to read your stories and for them to inspire other readers! Let’s swap ideas and spread the joy.