Helping others

Happiness. Rather than define it, I think “what is happiness” is best left an open question. Some words escape definition. Or perhaps what I mean is, some definitions are more likely to start arguments than others. It’s one of those words where meaning gets lost when you examine it to closely. Like Heisenberg’s uncertainty principal, you can go looking for it, but if you get close to finding it, if you catch a glimpse, it’s no longer quite what you thought it was. Better to just know it’s there. Better to just run with your own open context-malleable definition. All you need to know about my definition (at least the one I’m running with as I write this) is that it’s not hedonic, or in-the-moment pleasure. I’m sure it’s got something to do with having the capacity and drive to act on hope. I also have a hunch that there’s something in there about living a good life. The feeling that you’re valued by someone, by friends, by people, by the world. I’m not sure it’s an absence of sadness, but maybe – like the blue m&m being lost in the jar of red ones – there are enough happy thoughts to outweigh the sad.

You can cherry pick your happiness definition or secrets to happiness. The internet is flooded with articles that say “10 ways to happiness” and the like. One of the studies released in the last month focuses on the happiness that comes from helping others.[1] Being ‘prosocial’ (Do unto others or treat yourself?). Over 6 weeks, researchers compared mood and well being based on whether the almost 500 participants in the study were doing acts of kindness for (a) others (b) the world or (c) themselves. Those who undertook activities to treat themselves, reported no change in positive or negative emotions compared to a control group who undertook neutral activities. However the group of people who helped others or the world experienced “increases in positive emotions and decreases in negative emotions”. Generosity and altruism fuels well-being and happiness.

Reading the results of these sorts of studies is challenging if you make any attempt to internalise the findings. The empirical data and evidence boldly quips: “if you want to be happy, why aren’t you doing more of… (insert pithy research finding)?”

As I alluded to above, In my conception of happiness morality and ethics stand on the sidelines and referee my happiness efforts on the field.  The results of this particular study seem to represent a confluence in the streams of happiness and goodness (I’m not going to define goodness either).

So now I’m thinking about the findings. I slip on my “doing grief” / “doing life” hat. Am I helping enough? Who am I helping? Prepare for tedious introspection…

Helping others. I’m figuring the researchers were definitely not thinking of ‘me’ helping ‘me’ under the ‘helping others’ banner. But hear me out on this little bit of post-hoc confabulation. I sit down at the laptop to type these words, or I pick up a book to read and it’s true, it’s all about me. It’s something I enjoy for myself. An activity that makes me happy, but, at the same time according to the research, potentially not as happy as were I to be helping others. However, the deeper, fulfilling aspect of writing this blog is three-fold. Firstly, it’s the expedient belief that (potentially, hopefully) I’m helping other people think about their grief or life and having some positive impact. Secondly, and more importantly, (as I’ve written before) it’s the idea that one day my kids might read this and know and understand their dad that little bit better.

Thirdly, it’s opening a door to a real life conversation that otherwise wouldn’t have happened. I’ve had a number of chats to friends and family about what I’ve written. I had a really enjoyable conversation with mum and dad on a Sunday night a few weeks ago. I remember the feelings of happiness having the conversation more than I do the details of what we discussed. We talked a bit about my writing, and about what they thought of it. We talked about some of the ideas that I’d written about. How you feel like you can become a better person not in spite of, not because of, but just become a better person after having suffered crappy stuff. I had a similar conversation more recently with another friend. We used my writing as a jumping off point to talk about the crap that she’d been through in her life. We talked about her hard times. Times she spent wondering ‘is life always going to be this hard’. It’s possible these conversations may have taken place anyway, but I’m not sure that’s right. I hope writing and sharing have helped others. Perhaps the thought that it might, helps me via the mechanism this research suggests.

Helping the kids. No question. I’m helping them everyday. Aren’t I? Definitely. Do I always do it with a smile? No. I wonder what happens if my helpful actions are only ostensibly altruistic. Hidden below the helpful kindness is often a desire to get through whatever task I’m tackling with them and and find some peace and quiet on the other side. If I’m completely stressed out about getting the kids out the door to school because I don’t want to be late, does that count as helping? Even though I did ‘help’ to tie their shoelaces, to fill their water bottle, to find their jumper, to pack their lunch. I suspect you have to be fully engaged in the effort to record the happiness benefits this study documents. I suspect it has to be completely altruistic. Mostly altruistic? Most of the time I’m there, present and truly helping. I just need the odd reminder.

Helping the world. Not so crash hot in that department unfortunately. Don’t judge me too harshly, but I work for the coal industry. The world has just experienced the hottest April on record, which was preceded by the hottest March on record, and before that by the hottest February on record. All up it’s seven consecutive record setting months in a row. What on earth are the odds of this happening by chance? I googled that question. Turns out, not surprisingly, it’s a little hard to calculate. The answer appears to be somewhere between 1 in 1000 and 1 in 1,000,000 and they were the odds calculated back in January before the more recent run occurred.[2] Regardless, if man made climate change is real, then I’m part of the problem. But it might be worse without my efforts working in the industry on the inside? (This sounds really piss weak when I hear myself say it, and even worse when I see myself write it!) What if I told you I’m involved in mining metallurgical coal, not thermal coal and that the world has few other options to make steel? (Still not entirely convincing is it?) Ok, it’s not something I’m proud of. I potentially have capability in this area. The capacity to understand and perhaps the capacity to communicate the issues. However, right now ‘the world’ feels a little too big. I’ll run with the excuse – for the moment anyway – that it’s too big to be a meaningful activity to focus on. I’m sorry Harry and Cara. I strongly suspect in 20 years or so, if you ever think about your dad’s life, this may be something you never quite understand about the point in history where I’m writing from. I fear (and am almost certain) you will judge me and the rest of my generation harshly.

Helping the community. This all got me thinking about other (more realistic?) ways I do or don’t help out in the community. I feel like I participate in the kids’  school community. But do I? Really? I don’t volunteer to run stalls, or be part of the parents and friends association. I haven’t really got involved in helping other families out. Quite the reverse. I’ve been helped enormously by so many of the people from the school, that I know if won’t be possible to ever repay their kindness and generosity. I could do more. I should do more. 

I thought about this for a while. I thought about the kids school and sent an email offering to volunteer to help out at the athletics carnival. For some reason I hadn’t previously considered the opportunity. It happily happens to coincide with my day-off. A small thing out of a lot of thinking. But there it is. A start? Something to help brighten the way ahead on the road I’m walking.

[1] Nelson, S. K., Layous, K., Cole, S. W., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2016). Do Unto Others or Treat Yourself? The Effects of Prosocial and Self-Focused Behavior on Psychological Flourishing. Emotion. http://doi.org/10.1037/emo0000178

[2] For earlier estimates on the odds that this is all anthropogenic see: Mann, M. E., Rahmstorf, S., Steinman, B. A., Tingley, M., & Miller, S. K. (2016). The Likelihood of Recent Record Warmth. Scientific Reports, 6, 19831. http://doi.org/10.1038/srep19831

Featured Image: “Fatherhood, by Robert Scoble” by “Thomas Hawk” Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC-BY2.0). Accessed 19 June 2016. https://flic.kr/p/Erq2S

7 Responses

  1. Katie

    Trent, as a mother of 4 and an old friend of your Mary and her family, let me tell you – you are definitely helping the world, the community and your little family. Every time you are present to Harry and Cara and their needs; every time you show them, through your example, how to get through the hard days without their mum; every time they take the love you give them and give it to another, you are helping them, your community and the world. You are (more than) enough.
    Go well.

  2. Sandy Harris

    Hey Trent, I love this discussion on happiness.

    I would initially say I am most happy when helping others and would fit into the study like another percentage point….though when I think on it and am truthful, the search for this feeling is not always altruistic. I do need the feedback from time to time, the “Thank you” to gauge the effectiveness of the use of my time and to see if I would do it again.

    Have an awesome school holiday – travelling with kids is bonding time on steroids! This is something they will never forget. Though I did not know her as well as I would have liked, I can see Mary would be so proud of you taking on the everyday tasks like shoelaces and lunchboxes, but I bet that angel has a huge smile on her face – the epitome of happiness as she sees you steer Cara and Harry towards an adventure, exploring life to the full. Giving them freedom to express their grief in loss and also happiness and freedom to enjoy their joy in what they now find with you.


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