The benefits of being of service
“The key to realising a dream is to focus not on success but on service” Oprah Winfrey
I attended a funeral of a friend’s father recently. It was one of those funerals where there were more smiles than tears. It really felt like a celebration of his life rather than a grieving of his death. The dedications from his family and friends were full of stories of adventure, achievement, but most of all, love. I was struck by his commitment to serving his family, his community and the world at large. It was clear that he had instilled these values into his children, who were so proud and respectful of their Dad’s dedication and kindness.
The gift of service
Being of service is a value that has been role-modelled to me from a young age. My grandparents were inspiring in their commitment to serving their local farming communities. My father's parents were both active within Rotary. As soon as I was old enough, they invited me to speak at their local Rotary meetings about the various community activities I was involved with. My Nanna also volunteered for the Red Cross and was involved with the Country Women’s Association. The one thing that stands out to me as I reflect on their contributions was that it they did it because they loved it. It was not about recognition or status. It made them feel good because they knew they were helping others. That was enough.
My parents have also been strong role models in this way. Mum coached my netball team throughout my primary school years, and Mum and Dad were heavily involved with our school P&C during primary and high school. They encouraged my sisters and I to contribute to our community and led by example, particularly with fundraising activities, participating in sport and volunteering.
Service creates gratitude
As a GP and medical educator, I feel very privileged to be able to serve others on a daily basis through my work. Although there are days when I come home feeling sad, exhausted, frustrated and sometimes a bit hopeless, I always feel a sense of gratitude for having the opportunity to hold someone’s hand, to listen to their story, to offer them support and reassure them that someone cares. Frequently I cannot completely fix their situation, but often I can make a small difference that gives them hope that things can get better. I consider this service to be an essential part of my daily self-care.
We all long to belong
As I reflect on the range of issues that patients bring with them into my consulting room, many of them are related to a disconnection from their community. Whether it be physical or emotional symptoms they are describing, underneath there is almost always an underlying sense of longing to belong, a wish to be loved.
And yet we do not have the power to make others love us, accept us or serve us. We only have the capacity to love others, accept others and serve others. Not surprisingly, the more we reach out and offer love, acceptance and service to our families, friends and communities, the more we begin to notice a trickle of love, acceptance and service coming back to us. And it feels good.
The consequence of disengagement
I recently read a book “Lost Connections: Uncovering the real causes of depression and the unexpected solutions” by Johann Hari. He describes nine causes of anxiety and depression, and one of these is disconnection from meaningful work. He defines meaningful work as work that makes us feel “engaged…enthusiastic about, and committed to our work and contributing to our organisation in a positive manner.” He quotes research that has been carried out in 142 countries, involving millions of people, that found that only 13% of people are “engaged” in their jobs. Further to this, 24% are “actively disengaged” from their work.
This is indeed a sad state of affairs. Given that most work takes up such a significant percentage of our day, week and year, the fact that 87% of the world’s population are disengaged from their work means we have a major problem. How do we expect anyone to feel happy and healthy if they are not experiencing enjoyment for most of the day? No wonder the rates of depression and anxiety are high.
Reconnecting to meaningful work
Thankfully, Johann offers us some hope is his chapter about reconnection to meaningful work. He acknowledges that work that is seemingly meaningless has to be done, however he suggests that a change in mindset can turn meaningless work into meaningful, satisfying work. He describes the story of a young woman who set up a bike shop with five partners as a cooperative, where they worked collaboratively as a team, solving issues together and sharing the responsibility of running the business. This woman describes the freedom that comes with working in this democratic way, and the positive impact it has on her wellbeing. It turns out there are tens of thousands of workplaces operating in this way around the world, and the evidence suggests that feeling in control of your work increases your health and reduces the risk of anxiety and depression.
Service can be simple
If you don't feel that there is a possibility to create more meaning in your work, then there are other ways that you can be of service in the world. There are numerous community groups that could benefit from your support. You don’t have to go too far to find a church who is running a soup kitchen or an op shop where volunteers are needed. If you have children, schools are an ideal community to join with and serve, whether it be canteen duty or the school fete or coaching a sporting team. If you have a skill that is useful to others, such as being a carpenter or a gardener, then you could offer to provide handyman services to your local community or set up a community garden. You could start a walking group for people to connect and exercise. You could start a knitting group and make blankets for babies at the local hospital.
Intention is important
Key to choosing how you will be of service is to focus on the intention of your service. Knowing the why beneath the what and how you serve is critical if you are to reap the rewards of wellbeing. Find a way to be of service because you want to, not because you feel you should or because you will receive recognition. Seek to find joy in your service, for this will flow on to those who you serve and they too will experience joy in being served.
These are just some ideas to get you thinking, but there are so many more opportunities to be of service and connect with others in a beautiful, healing way. I suggest you try it today and see how you feel. I’m guessing you’ll feel good to be alive and part of something bigger than yourself. You might just notice that your health improves too.