If you think a normal response to the question “what makes you happy?” is to burst into spontaneous song—like Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music singing about raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens—you’d be wrong. It’s actually a pretty deep question and it requires a surprising amount of self-reflection.
I like to think of myself as an upbeat kind of person. So it came as quite a surprise to realise that I didn’t have an immediate answer to the question: what makes me happy? First, I came up with a pretty lame list of things I quite like to eat: chocolate, ice cream, chocolate ice cream. But when I thought about it, a chocolate brownie sundae with hot fudge sauce has been known to lighten my mood, but not always. And certainly not every day. It’s a sugary, sickly-sweet passing kind of happiness which lasts only as long as the length of a spoon. Filling, but not deeply fulfilling.
But what does give me a sense of overall fulfilment and satisfaction? What makes me happy with myself as a person and the choices I have made? I had to dig a little deeper to find out. I made a list of all the things I enjoy doing at work and in my spare time and I noticed a theme. All led back to my love of people and my love of problem-solving. Helping others, it seems, is as much a necessary part of helping myself. And it turns out there’s pretty good science behind why selfless acts towards others make us happy. According to the Mental Health Foundation, some of the benefits of altruism are:
- It promotes positive physiological changes in the brain associated with happiness
- It brings a sense of belonging and reduces isolation
- It helps to keep things in perspective
- An act of kindness can improve confidence, control, happiness and optimism
- The more you do for others, the more you do for yourself
- It reduces stress
- It helps get rid of negative feelings
- It can help us live longer
Some of my most rewarding experiences have come from volunteering for organisations committed to things I care about. In the process I’ve developed transferable skills, made new friends and developed new interests. I would totally recommend volunteering for something you are passionate about. Be guided by what you love, whether it’s animals, arts or antiques! From learning to act while helping out at a community theatre, to learning catering whilst transforming lives in a soup kitchen—it’s really up to you. What better time to be exposed to new opportunities than when you are feeling good about yourself and happy with what you are doing?
Written by Shirin Zaid
Photograph by Elana Amsterdam