The question of how to have a fulfilling existence during our short time on earth is especially significant in contemporary society. Many of us find that we struggle much less than our ancestors did for survival and basic necessities. We don’t have tigers chasing us, or wolves bothering us. As a result, when our short-term survival is not on the line, our prefrontal cortexes can direct their energies to questions of long-term happiness.
The different amounts of struggle required from different people to meet their day-to-day needs cover a wide spectrum. I am fortunate to have lived on both ends of that spectrum. I grew up in a small North Indian town where electricity without blackouts was a dream, indoor toilets were unheard of, and the amount of running water in our home was limited to what we could carry from the well to our roof tank. People in such an environment can certainly live a fulfilling existence, but they don’t have enough brain cycles to actively think about it much. In contrast, my current life in the center of Silicon Valley allows me to take electricity, toilets, and running water for granted – and hundreds of other conveniences. Here, my struggle to meet day-to-day necessities of life is minimal, but my struggles with questions of “happiness” and “fulfillment” are more pressing than ever.
Several years back, I lived through a depressive episode. Before that, I had never experienced “real failure.” I had lived through difficulty, for sure, but a psychological failure where I found myself at a loss as to what my next steps in life should be – that was new for me. Outwardly, I looked successful. I had a good job and a good education and my life was going well. But inwardly, it all felt meaningless. Manipulating bits on a computer for a living was new for me, and it quickly grew to seem empty.
That episode helped change my approach to finding a fulfilling existence. Before this change, my focus was all about me. More achievement for me, more praise for me (although I was very “humble” about my achievements), more spirituality for me, more of everything for me. But even with that more of everything, I did not have the tools to be happy. Then during that episode of depression, I realized I was focusing on the wrong things.
Happiness and fulfillment don’t seem to follow the usual laws of physics. If you start with a pound of candies, then share half of them with others, you end up with fewer candies. But if you share your happiness with others, that does not seem to diminish your happiness; it is amplified. If you make someone’s day fulfilling, your own fulfillment goes up. This seems to indicate a simple approach for finding fulfillment in life: focus less on yourself and more on others, serve them, create value for them.
We all have a desire to be useful, to be of service to others. A wise professor told me once: “Sometimes, you should help others by letting them help you.” This honors an innate desire that all people seem to feel.
In the years since I first began thinking about service to others, I’ve developed some nuances in my views. First, being of service to others does not mean ignoring our own needs. It just asks us to balance a focus on others with the care we hold for our own lives. Second, this focus on service is less about what we do, and more about how we do it. Almost any task can be viewed as a torturous, boring activity; or it can be viewed as a deeply meaningful service to others, one person at a time. The difference is in the mindset.
This is especially clear in our work lives. Viewing a job as a meaningless chore and a test of our tolerance, as something we just do so we can pay the bills, is not an empowering way to approach fulfillment in life. But viewing a job as an avenue where we can create value for the world in exchange for money, this is a refreshing change of perspective that can help us enjoy our work and our lives.
The second big area of life where we can apply a service-oriented approach to fulfillment is family. In our families, serving our partner to support them in their life quest is an empowering way to build harmony. Tony Robbins famously asked people who said they were unhappy in their relationships: When you are unhappy, are you thinking about your own desires or about your partner’s? For me, my unhappiness is invariably tied to the times when I am thinking about me and myself. What am I not getting? How am I being treated unfairly? If I am able to shift my focus to what I can do to serve my partner and make her life a little bit more wonderful, my unhappiness invariably wears off within a matter of minutes. When both partners can view serving each other as their primary motivation for being in the relationship, that is when one and one make eleven!
Volunteerism is another realm of life where acts of service can transform our relationships with ourselves and with other people. Volunteering at a local food bank, helping people in need, lending a listening ear to a person in distress, handing out lemonade on a hot summer afternoon – are all excellent examples of service and fulfillment.
Even within Quaker faith and practice, an orientation toward service makes our experience more powerful. During meeting for worship, I have struggled with the question of when to speak and when not to speak. The purpose of spoken ministry was unclear to me for a long time. But once I started to view spoken ministry as an act of service for the meeting, for everyone present, the veil of confusion fell away. When I view ministry as something I want to share, it feels imposed. When I view ministry as service for everyone, it feels freeing. Our ministry belongs to the meeting; and it is for the meeting that we give it. Viewing ministry as an act of service, as an act of creating value for the whole meeting, makes our own “listening to the light” more powerful,
Adopting an attitude of service in everything we do might seem daunting, especially if the world has not been kind to us in the past. We might worry about what will happen if others don’t reciprocate. We might worry about being taken advantage of, about seeming naïve. All that is possible. The path of service is not guaranteed to be covered with rose petals. But a person can lean into this new attitude slowly. An attitude of being ready to serve is an attitude of vulnerability. We need to find the right balance – not feeling so vulnerable that we feel overly exposed, yet allowing ourselves to be vulnerable enough that we can deepen our relationships with others.
What can you do to lean into an attitude of service in your life? What areas of your life are most open to a greater service? Listen to your heart. Experience the fulfillment that service can bring to your existence
every day. ~~~
Yogi Sharma is a trained mathematician and software engineer. He has recently begun coaching people to be more effective and more fulfilled through the power of small habits and consistent action. He attends Palo Alto Meeting (PYM), where he contributes to the First Day School Committee and the El Salvador Projects.