Gretchen RubinLast year, I spent the school year - from September through May - doing a new happiness project. I wanted to identify the small, realistic changes I could make to my life that would make me happier at home. After all, my experience of our apartment and all that it embodied was the foundation of my life.
For me, my sense of "home" also included my neighborhood. To cultivate a true sense of neighborliness, I recognized, I needed to extend my attention beyond my apartment building and my own circle of acquaintances. But how?
A few years ago, I set out to "imitate a spiritual master" in an effort to understand myself better. I identified my spiritual master as St. Thérèse of Lisieux - perhaps a curious choice, given that I'm not Catholic. I was haunted by different lines from her spiritual memoir, Story of a Soul, such as "When one loves, one does not calculate." My fascination with St. Thérèse was so deep that I'd become interested in the other spiritual masters in the Thérèse chain - the Renaissance-period Teresa of Ávila, the great reformer, founder, and mystic; and the contemporary Mother Teresa, who worked tirelessly with the "poorest of the poor" in Calcutta and elsewhere.
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As I read about Mother Teresa, I was particularly struck by a single line: When a person begged to join her mission or asked how to imitate the example of her life, she admonished, "Find your own Calcutta." Which I took to mean: Find your own cause, your own way to serve others. Just as she'd experienced a "call within a call" that had guided her to a particular kind of work, others should discover what cause moved them to action and where their work could be useful. I wanted to find my own Calcutta.
About one-quarter of Americans volunteer, and of those, a third volunteer for more than a hundred hours each year. (Believe it or not, that kind of commitment requires just two hours a week.) Volunteering to help others is the right thing to do, and it also boosts personal happiness; research shows that people who aid the causes they value tend to be happier and in better health, and that they show fewer signs of physical and mental aging. And it's not just that helpful people also tend to be healthier and happier; helping others causes happiness. "Be selfless, if only for selfish reasons," as one of my happiness paradoxes holds.
But while it's absolutely true that helping other people makes us happier, and that people feel a real "helper's high," it's also true that when people are unhappy, they often find it tough to help others. If they did help, they'd probably feel happier, but unhappy people often become preoccupied with their own problems and don't have the emotional reserves to turn outward. By contrast, happy people volunteer more, give away more money, and naturally take an interest in others.
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I've observed this in myself. As my life became happier, I became more eager to find ways to help other people. To me, Mother Teresa's admonition to "find [my] own Calcutta" directed me to find a cause that demanded my interest, attention, and abilities. Already in my life there was a cause that moved me with particular force, I realized: organ donation.
When my husband was 8 years old, he had a heart operation and picked up hepatitis C from the blood transfusion - which means his liver is under constant surreptitious attack. We hope his liver will last forever, but it might not. He's outwardly perfectly healthy now and may never need a liver transplant. But because of the possibility of his needing one, I developed a deep interest in the issue of organ donation. A few years ago, in fact, I became involved with the New York Organ Donor Network (NYODN), the organ-procurement organization that manages the clinical process of organ donation, coordinates donor matches, and helps donor families.
My time with this organization has taught me a great deal about the challenges of organ donation. The United States has a huge unmet need for organs for transplant, and the NYODN tries in manifold ways to address this issue. One of their initiatives: Work to encourage more people to sign up as organ donors on the donor registry. In New York State, where I live, 83% of people support organ donation, but only 15% have actually taken the step to sign the registry. This step is important: When families confront the issue of whether to donate a loved one's organs, it's helpful for them to know if the person wanted that.
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A few years ago, a friend who works with an organization that funds social entrepreneurs mentioned to me, "Whenever I talk to applicants, I ask them to describe their moment of obligation. I'm always interested to hear the answer."
"What's a 'moment of obligation'?" I asked. I'd never heard this term.
"It's the moment when you think, Hey, someone should really try to improve the distribution of vaccines, or teach schoolkids about art, and you realize, Hey, I'm the one who should do something. Me."
When I thought about opportunities to help with the donor registry, I felt that moment of obligation. His was my Calcutta. But I hesitated to throw myself into it. I was no expert in online marketing, state health policy, or organ donation; did I know enough to make suggestions? Shouldn't people with more expertise drive the process? I already felt overtaxed by my own work; did I have the time and energy to devote to the issue? Although I was trained as a lawyer, I so rarely drew on my legal background anymore; was it appropriate for me to venture an opinion about some of the legal matters that organ donation raised?
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Well...true, I thought, I was no online marketing expert, but I used tools such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. I didn't know much about Web design, but I knew some things. I understood the basic legal issues related to the registry, and why change was so urgently needed. So I jumped in and offered my time to the cause.
It does make me happier to know that I'm doing whatever I can, with whatever capacities I possess, to promote the cause of organ donation. As I have seen through my own experience, we don't need to be able to donate huge amounts of time, money, or expertise to help the causes we support. When I made the effort to try to become involved, I found a way to make a contribution within the limits of my own abilities and circumstances. And that made me happier. In fact, I'll mention my cause to you right now: Learn how to sign the registry at donatelife.net/register-now.
Have you identified your own Calcutta? What are the causes to which you give your time and/or money? Let me know in the comments!
Want more tips to be happy? Visit goodhousekeeping.com/gretchen
-By Gretchen Rubin
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