Usefulness as a path to genuine happiness

Are you happy?

Your answer may result from how you’re feeling right now; that is, your mood.
Even though you automatically assumed that the question referred to general happiness with life, you answered based on what mood you’re currently in.

  • If you’re feeling a “negative” emotion, then your answer was probably no.
  • If you’re feeling a “positive” emotion, then your answer was most likely yes!

However, not only is your current emotion a false predictor of overall happiness, but one has to wonder if “Happiness” is a worthwhile destiny; a good and achievable end unto itself.

Perhaps the pursuit of “happiness” is no more than a mirage—a false idol.
Perhaps when it comes to happiness, we’re putting the cart before the horse.

Since most of what we do is aimed at the pursuit of “happiness,” we may have to consider whether our lack of success is a wake-up call.
To put it another way, if everything we’ve done to be “happy” hasn’t permanently helped, then we have two confronting questions:

  1. Is what we’re chasing for happiness worthwhile, and
  2. Is happiness an impossible goal in itself?

I would contend that for both questions, the answer is no!

We’ve all been and done the following at one time or another for the expectation of happiness.

  • Worked a job we hate to buy stuff we don’t need
  • We buy things we don’t need to impress people we don’t like
  • Buy further things we don’t need to relieve our boredom with ourselves
  • Go on trips to escape ourselves, yet, discover that we take our neurosis with us wherever we go.
  • We lay or stay with someone we don’t like or love in the hope of an unattainable fantasy.
  • Chase awards as external validation
  • the list of superficial and temporary tickets to happiness can go on for quite awhile.

Our rationalisation for all these things is the presumption of future happiness.

I realised that genuine fulfilment never came from those activities. Any true fulfilment and authentic joy only ever came from one specific source: the ability to be and feel useful.

I know this to be absolute because despite being paralysed with ALS and having every physical faculty of autonomy taken away, I’ve never resorted to anti-depressants or anxiolytics to “cope” with my situation. Of course, I have bad days, but mostly they’re a result of continuously lousy sleep due to muscular, nerve and joint discomfort. But under the circumstances, I can honestly say I generally feel content with my lot.

Of course, I yearn for all the physical activities I could do before ALS.
Of course, I yearn for all the physical possibilities I would do if I wasn’t paralysed.

  • Things that give us respite from life’s assault.
  • Things that add colour to our life.
  • Things that add value to our life.

Despite all this being taken away, the one thing I can pinpoint as the sole reason for my solid state of mind is my ability to feel useful—having skills I can use to be useful for myself and others.

I’ve always found great joy and fulfilment in learning skills. The more I know how to do, the more options I have. The more options I have, the more happiness and fulfilment flows from personal pride, independence, and possible service to others.

Service to others is something that fulfilled me. The fulfilment came from seeing the immediate solace and appreciation by another in something I knew and was able to do.

It’s essential, however, to clarify what is meant by useful.

Usefulness refers to our practical ability and choice to be of service to others.
Both are important.

  • If I choose to be of service to others, but I have no skills or ability, then I become an impediment to be managed by those that do.
  • If I have skills but don’t use them to serve myself and others, then again, I become an impediment to be managed by others that will.

The right combination for symptomatic happiness through usefulness is: useful skills + fulfilment through using those skills and personal expression via service to others.

The Need to Feel Useful

Passion for your chosen skillset cannot be underestimated.

I used to be a specialised welder. Welding is a useful skill to have when working with metal, yet, I don’t love doing it as an expression of my life. I learned to weld not because I loved it, but because my father was a welder, and that appeared to my simple mind at 16 the only viable choice available to me.

As a result of that fateful choice, I spent my adult years learning different skills to not only be independent and self-sufficient, but also in a desperate search for that elusive skill set that would “click”. I did countless courses, seminars, workshops, classes and jobs. I read hundreds of books, magazines and articles on how to do this and that. While I had fun and added various skills to my toolkit, nothing gripped me by the throat (yet every new skill added to my confidence and the seed of possibility).

But one experience leads to another; meeting someone births the exchange of ideas and contacts that carries us in an undercurrent of inevitability—each decision causing a cascade of chance encounters and decisions that leads us by the heart towards our destiny.

That destiny before ALS was bodywork: specifically, Structural Integration. I’ve written about it in the past, and those who knew me recognised the fire within that burned bright for the work. Finally, I had found that skillset that filled the criteria for “happiness” as an inevitability of performing the service.

  1. It was a useful, desired, manual skill requiring intellectual rigour.
  2. It was a skill that I received a lot of fulfilment and pleasure from using, and,
  3. It was skill solely reserved for service to others’ wellbeing.

In my case, Bodywork fulfilled every criterion as a career where I could express and become all I could be.

Other people achieve the same fulfilment via the arts (dancing, music, sculpture, acting, etc.), engineering, science, medicine, research, construction, retail, hospitality, transport, politics, support, technology, volunteering, and so on. It doesn’t matter what the discipline is, but it must be:

  1. A useful skill that,
  2. You love deeply enough to keep evolving, and
  3. Focuses on selfless service to improve others’ lives in some fundamental, lasting way for the better.

Once these three criteria are in place, I guarantee you that “happiness” in the form of personal fulfilment will be the inevitable conclusion.

How could it not be?

However, the “selfless service to others” means that you genuinely work with the intention of bettering mankind. There’s a palpable difference between two equally skilled experts in a discipline who work with different intentions. The first may work solely as a habit or in pursuit of profit. The second does his work with the sole intention of benefitting his customer/client/patient. Both will appear to produce the same external result, but internally (both the giver and the receiver) will experience a vastly different outcome.

The one focused on profit will receive a fleeting moment of happiness to compensate for their ambivalence (or disdain) for the work, but it’s soon replaced by stress as to the logistics of the next profit potential. This is how I felt as a welder. The money was compensation for my deep dissatisfaction with the profession.

The one focused on genuine service will receive a lasting fulfilment from having been useful in his unique expressive assistance to humankind. Profit potential doesn’t seem to matter so much, yet, it inevitably appears as a result of people’s joy in your service. Of much more importance is learning or improving our skill set so we’re more effective in service. This is how I felt as a bodyworker. The work was a salve to my previously embittered soul.

New Direction, Same Path.

One has to remember that while our body expresses the skill, it’s the mind that learns, remembers and directs the skill to be useful. Currently, a skillset that I love and use to serve others is my knowledge of Herbalism, Philosophy and Writing. These skills were chosen and refined over time because of my intrinsic attraction to them.

  • Via Herbalism, I supply quality herbs to people in suffering that need it most.
  • Via Philosophy, I can analyse issues at a deeper level than commonly considered.
  • Via Writing, I can explain and clarify those issues to an audience in order to inspire them.

Luckily I still have rudimentary movement in my right arm. I can use this basic remnant to push a computer mouse and operate a computer. So, while my skills are intellectually based, I can manifest physical results via a computer, and ultimately, through the usefulness and service of others.

Yet, a professional skillset isn’t the only way to help others.
Your attitude may be the most vital characteristic you can offer in service.

You are what you do

Let me tell you about the happiest person I know: my mother.

Her innate disposition is other-focused. That is, she has an extremely high social/assistance intelligence. She has the constant attribute of pre-empting what people need and assisting them without being asked. Her humility is astounding. No matter who asks her for a favour or an errand, she volunteers if capable without question. Her sole purpose for existing is to make other’s lives better.

I’ve never heard of or met anyone who has a bad word to say about my mother; either directly or through the grapevine. Anyone who comes in contact with her walks away feeling better for the experience.

The question then could be:

  1. Is she happy because she helps others? Or,
  2. Does she help others because she’s happy?

I think the answer becomes evident if you think of anyone in both camps. Overwhelmingly, the answer is that she/people are intrinsically happy and fulfilled because they’ve made themselves useful in the process of serving others.

Someone who helps others because he/she’s happy is likely to stop doing so once their mood changes. If service is reliant on a positive emotion then what happens when a negative emotion appears?

We have to conclude that genuine happiness is a result of usefulness, not a requirement.

How can you be useful?

  • Can you repair something?
  • Can you source something?
  • Can you arrange something?
  • Can you sort out or organise something?
  • Can you beautify something?
  • Can you transport something or someone?
  • Can you entertain?
  • Can you calm, encourage, inspire, cheer, manage or influence?
  • Can you teach something useful?
  • Can you cook, clean, iron, sew or tidy?
  • Can you search and take responsibility for what needs to be done?
  • Can you be useful?

Server Beware

Usefulness doesn’t mean being a doormat or becoming a martyr. There’s no usefulness, utility or fulfilment from such behaviour. True usefulness and service come from a solid foundation of autonomy and personal freedom. That is, it’s only personally fulfilling if you want to do it, not if you have to do it from coercion or habit, nor need to do it for personal advantage.

We’ve all met someone whose “assistance” feels stained with the stench of self-gratification, grudging duty, or a reluctant favour. I don’t mean the natural reluctance in to help someone who can clearly help themselves but chooses not to from laziness, habit or opportunism.

You are a means to an end. That “assistance” has an interest rate that you’re going to have to pay down the line through coerced reciprocity, guilt or shame, or repeated future acknowledgment.

Likewise, beware of those that use your service as a crutch to forego responsibility. Their insatiable need will eventually drain you of resources, compassion and will. Once you’re depleted and no longer useful they’ll move on to another well to drain.

You Are Built To Serve

Serving others, co-operation, and ultimately, love and caring is encoded into our very physiology. Our very biology relies on every cell, organ and system serving and working for the benefit of another.

  • The digestive system works hard to break down food into essential components for other systems to use, and remove waste.
  • The cardiovascular system works hard to pump nutrient-rich blood to every other system of your body.
  • The endocrine system creates and processes hormones that assist other systems to function.
  • The nervous system spends all its time receiving and giving feedback and instructions for other systems to calibrate and move.
  • The skeletal system not only provides support for your muscles to attach to so you can move but also produces marrow and blood for other systems to use.
  • The integumentary system provides protection and thermal regulation for other systems.
  • The lymphatic systems carry and hold back any invaders that may harm other systems.
  • The immune system is solely responsible for protecting every other system against alien/foreign harm
  • The reproductive system is responsible for creating the material for other entities.
  • The respiratory system works continuously to bring in oxygen for energy and expel carbon dioxide wastes, for the survival of every other system.
  • The Urinary system works tirelessly to filter the blood and remove waste for other systems.

Every system uniquely serves for the benefit of the whole. Every system‘s survival and wellbeing is utterly dependent on how well it works to help other interdependent systems

The only things in our bodies that are self-serving, and take resources without giving anything back are cancerous tumours. These are pure consumers that grow, multiply, spread, deplete and destroy the very environment they depend on without giving anything useful to the system’s wellbeing.

  • A Heart can’t filter blood or digest food; its purpose is to pump blood. That’s its unique gift to serve.
  • A Kidney can’t produce insulin, it’s purpose and service to the whole is to filter the blood. This is an essential and vital function to perform well.

It’s vitally important for genuine happiness that you serve by being useful in the unique way that belongs to you.

So you see, service to others’ wellbeing is hardcoded into your very existence. Perhaps noticing how various systems work—biological and ecological—and you’ll recognise meta-patterns of service at play.

Maybe then, the secret to happiness was under our noses all along.

Knowing what you know now, how are your future decisions going to change?

  • Are you going to chase happiness by chasing people and things?
  • Or are you going to be happiness by serving others via your unique expression of usefulness?

Perhaps, the only true purpose in life, considering every successful system, is simply to be genuinely useful. Everything good and right naturally flows into its optimal and contented place as a direct consequence of your unique service to others.

How useful are you to your family and community?

What unique skills do you bring to benefit others?

How are you using those skills in a useful way to better yourself and the lives of those around you?

As a parting thought to contemplate, I’ll leave you with this question: To gauge your personal level of usefulness, are you someone that instantly comes to mind in others if they need help?

Or are you their desperate last resort?

Be safe. Be useful. Be joy.

Also published on Medium.

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