The Purpose of Life Is to Be Helpful, not Happy
Always be helpful
“We make a living by what we get, we make a life by what we give.” — Winston Churchill
Life has no meaning.
That’s the problem why most people can’t find their life’s purpose — they think of meaning as a thing rather than an experience. Purpose is not something we can have; we bring meaning to life.
That’s the paradox of happiness too — when we turn it into a goal, we can’t attain it. Being happy is a by-product of what you do and appreciating what you have. Happiness is more a state of mind than an emotion.
The ill-constructed idea of happiness — “Dark Side of Happiness,” as psychologists call it — distracts us from more meaningful aspects of life. The bigger the obsession with being happy, the less we appreciate what we already have.
The journey is more important than the destination — we find purpose traveling.
Being helpful brings purpose to life
“We rise by lifting others.”
— Robert Ingersoll
Discovering meaning is the purpose of life.
One of the recurring issues I face as a change consultant is that people approach purpose through an individualistic lens — they think meaning is about them. The challenge is to rewire people’s minds — purpose is not about us, but about our relationships.
American philosopher and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson was right when he said, “The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.”
Aristotle wrote that finding happiness and fulfillment is achieved “by loving rather than in being loved.” Relationships with others are “a central feature of a positive, well-lived life” — that’s the critical insight Psychologist Carol Ryff uncovered after reviewing the writings of numerous philosophers throughout history.
Similarly, a study by Daryl Van Tongeren and his colleagues provide evidence that prosociality enhances meaning in life. Participants who were more altruistic reported a greater sense of purpose and meaning in their lives.
There are two types of well-being: hedonic (a sense of happiness) and eudaimonic (a sense of meaning and purpose).
A meaningful life and a happy life often go hand-in-hand, but not always.
That’s the insight behind a paper published by Roy Baumeister in the Journal of Positive Psychology. The findings suggest that meaning (separate from happiness) is not connected with whether one is healthy, has enough money, or feels comfortable in life, while happiness (separate from meaning) is.
Satisfying your wants and needs might bring you happiness, but doesn’t add meaning. Happiness is about the present; meaningfulness is more holistic — it brings the past, present, and future together.
The research points to one factor that is essential to finding meaning: developing high-quality relationships.
Happiness is linked to being a taker rather than a giver; meaningfulness is derived from giving to other people.
Life is a give and take
“There were two classes of charitable people: one, the people who did a little and made a great deal of noise; the other, the people who did a great deal and made no noise at all.” — Charles Dickens
Your reciprocity style defines whether you land at the top or the bottom of the success ladder, according to Adam Grant’s book “Give and Take”.
According to the Wharton Business School professor, there are three different reciprocity styles: Takers, Givers, and Matchers.
1. “Takers” are fixated on always getting more than they give.
They believe the world is a competitive ‘dog-eat-dog’ place. They want to succeed at any cost — giving makes them weak. Takers feel the need to self-promote as they are in constant competition with others.
“What’s in it for me?” “What am I getting out of this?” “Why should I care?”
Their actions are driven by self-serving questions — they look out for themselves. This behavior makes Takers calculating, cautious, and self-protective.
2. “Matchers” believe in quid pro quo.
They approach relationships with a sense of fairness and equality. If they do someone a favor, they expect something in return. Similarly, they feel indebted to you, if you did them a favor.
“If you take from me, I’ll take from you. If you give to me, I’ll give to you.”
Matchers are driven by balance — they are always tracking how much they give and how much they receive.
3. Givers are other-focused
They behave driven by generosity, not speculation. They don’t weigh the pros and cons neither carry a balance sheet of good deeds. They seek to enrich the lives of the people they interact with.
“How can I add value for this person?” “What can I contribute?”
Givers are driven by meaning. They strive to be generous in sharing their time, knowledge, ideas, and connections with other people.
The insight behind this model is simple: be kind and helpful to others. However, giving has some significant risks though. While more Givers are found at the top of the corporate ladder, a lot of them also end up at the bottom of the ladder.
Giving too much (or to the wrong person) can harm you.
The problem with giving
“If you can, help others; if you cannot do that, at least do not harm them.” — Dalai Lama
The gift of giving can become a weakness — you can suffer from burn out.
Adam Grant’s study reveals there is a bi-modal distribution of givers in an organization. There was a common theme for those who underperformed. Sometimes, they give too much. Often they are giving to the wrong people (the Takers).
Context matters too. Giving in a work culture that rewards Takers (people who talk a lot, but do nothing), sucks away the passion from Givers.
Some people can’t stop giving even if the situation leaves them emotionally empty. Maybe because they don’t care about their needs or are afraid of disappointing someone else. Someone people fear being punished if they don’t give everything.
Balancing the act of giving is important — it protects you from being taken advantage of.
Giving brings meaning to your life by developing stronger relationships. Givers create win-win situations and help others succeed.
Life is a continuum where all your acts are intertwined. You design your Karma — you get based on what you give. Matchers — those looking for quid pro quo — will feel inclined to give back to you.
7 ways to be helpful to others
“If you light a lamp for somebody, it will also brighten your path.” — Buddha
People who are generous, who give more than they get, and who genuinely try to help others are more likely to succeed. Here are some ways to continue being helpful to others.
1. Build, don’t limit others:
The simplest way to help others is to build on their ideas. Most of the times, we react with a ‘no’ or ‘yes, but’ mentality — we are writing people’s ideas off. Either because we are busy or don’t care. A ‘yes, and…’ mindset will make you more helpful, as I wrote here. Amplify other’s people ideas and thoughts. Creativity is driven by generosity.
2. Practice 5-minute favors:
Made famous by serial entrepreneur Adam Rifkin, 5-minute favors are small yet impactful favors that take little time. Consider all the ways you can help others. I’m okay making an introduction, giving a recommendation on LinkedIn, providing feedback, or quick advice — it just takes me 5 minutes.
3. Be an active listener:
Most people don’t need advice, they just want someone to pay attention. Talking aloud brings clarity and perspective. Unfortunately, most people don’t listen or want to share their smart words of wisdom. Paying attention and understanding requires generosity — be present and don’t interrupt.
4. Be a Positive influence:
Sometimes we overlook how our behaviors impact others. Your words and mindset are a powerful influence — bring meaning to your relationships. Practice giving and inspire others to be helpful too.
5. Volunteer your services:
Your time is a valuable asset — give your work without expecting something in return. Non-profits, people or companies that are just getting started, need your services more than those that can afford it. I spend a considerable amount of my consulting practice doing pro-bono — it’s the best way to express gratitude for business success.
6. Mentor others:
You can change someone else’s life. Mentoring is an act of empathy — you see life through the eyes of someone very different. Either if you are mentor someone who’s just getting started or a successful professional looking for a career change, mentoring transforms both parties. I learned that from direct experience. Mentoring is more than giving — you are training the mentee into the art of being helpful.
7. Volunteer in your community:
According to a report by Deloitte, 74% of people that volunteer feel a sense of purpose and an increase in well-being. If you are up for a challenge, check out this 30-day kindness challenge — daily acts of kindness can help you build a lifelong habit. Or browse volunteering opportunities in the U.S. or across the globe.
Life has no meaning — it’s a journey to find our purpose.
The world is full of Givers and Takers. Some people like to contribute, and others just look out for themselves. The side we choose shapes our Karma.
Find purpose in being helpful — enjoy giving without expecting anything return.
Train Your Mind
Download my free ebook: “Stretch Your Mind,” a compilation of exercises to grow beyond your comfort zone, one stretch at a time.
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