New research is finding that being kind and giving to others can make our lives feel more meaningful. The idea that helping others is part of a meaningful life has been around for thousands of years. Yet today, many of us struggle to find meaning by gathering achievements and spending so much time at work that we’re cut off from other people.
Are we headed down the wrong path? New research is providing more and more evidence that kind and helpful behavior cause us to feel that our lives are meaningful, and discover what we can do to reap those benefits.
Relationships and the meaningful life
Often, psychologists have distinguished between two types of well-being: hedonic well-being (a sense of happiness) and eudaimonic well-being (a sense of meaning and purpose). Although happiness and meaning overlap significantly, researchers suspected that helping others is especially crucial to developing a sense of meaning.
A recent study by Roy Baumeister at Florida State University sought to investigate this and other differences between happiness and meaning. In a survey of over 300 participants, the researchers looked for traits and behaviors that were related to happiness (but not meaningfulness) and vice versa. The researchers found that having strong social connections was important for both happiness and meaningfulness. However, helping others in need and identifying oneself as a “giver” in relationships were related to meaning alone.
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Baumeister points out that a meaningful life is different for everyone (since the cultural messages we have been exposed to can impact what we see as meaningful). However, the research on meaning in life points to one factor that appears to be significant for all of us: developing high-quality relationships.
Happiness is helping others: striving for more meaning in life
Scientific research provides compelling data to support the anecdotal evidence that giving is a powerful pathway to personal growth and lasting happiness. Experiments show evidence that altruism is hardwired in the brain—and it’s pleasurable. Helping others may just be the secret to living a life that is not only happier but also healthier, wealthier, more productive, and meaningful.
Five great ideas on how to give back
As that old saying goes, what you give comes back to you. Do you have a passion for helping others? The best way to give your time or money is to give it in ways that are helpful to others.
Below are five great ideas about how you can give back to the community.
- Help with your hands
- Start a fundraising campaign
- Organize a charity event
- Volunteer your time
- Become a coach or mentor
The key is to find the approach that fits us. When we do, then the more we give, the more we stand to gain purpose, meaning, and happiness—all the things that we look for in life but are so hard to find.