Why Acting Selflessly Is the True Key to Happiness

The Gap in Positive Psychology

We all want to be happy, but like dieting, there is not a "one-size-fits-all" approach. Over the years, people have suggested that daily exercise, travel, mindfulness or creativity will make you happy. Some have even gone as far as arguing that "retail therapy" will actually cure your blues.

But far and away, gratitude has been touted as the ultimate key to happiness. Whether supporters are commodifying the concept through "gratitude journals" or selling "gratitude training" seminars, many are convinced that if we are more grateful for what we have/receive in life, we will be happy. Indeed, there is an entire school of thought on this theory called positive psychology.

I bought into the positive psychology concept in college upon reading Victor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning. Frankl, a victim of the horrific Nazi concentration camps, articulated how the camp prisoners attained incredibly high levels of gratitude for small things like sunsets or memories of loved ones. However, there may be a potential gap with the gratitude framework in that you need something to be grateful for in the first place. In other words, it relies on an external dependency. And, research shows that it's difficult for some people, particularly those who may be depressed, to optimistically reflect on their external environment. Therefore, I argue that selflessness--not gratitude--is the key to sustainable happiness.

Why Selfless Acts Build More Long-Term Happiness: The Parenting Use Case

I was recently listening to a podcast where Oprah was interviewing author/speaker Malcolm Gladwell. Oprah asked Malcolm about the most selfless act he could think of. Malcolm paused a moment and asked "what could be more selfless than a parent raising and taking care of a young child?" The two legends ultimately agreed that being a parent tops the list. I tend to agree. Whether it's rescuing the kids from monsters in the middle of the night, changing the fifth diaper of the day, or playing the role of waiter, chef, janitor and teacher in the span of an afternoon, parenting is full of selfless acts. Unlike when Ellen DeGeneres gives away an iPhone to her audience or an elected official does a photo-op at a new community development, there's no self-promotion in making sure the baby's bottle is just the right temperature. It's pure selflessness or putting the needs of others above your own.

If being a parent consistently involves ignoring what you receive and focuses on someone else's needs, there couldn't be a strong correlation to joy, right? On the contrary, the majority of parents will tell you that while parenting carries its fair share of hurdles, it is commonly considered the most rewarding aspect of one's life. A recent study found that an overwhelming 91% of parents agree that "parenting is their greatest joy in life." The same likely holds true for those caring for an elderly family member, raising a pet, conducting significant volunteer services, etc. One reason behind this outcome may be the lack of expectations when we are truly acting selflessly. If we focus our energy on helping others without a quid pro quo in mind, our self-interested expectations are lower and the output is more satisfying. Conversely, if we focus only on how we are grateful for external factors that bring us joy, we may build higher expectations which can lead to disappointment.

Another benefit of acting selflessly is that it helps to avoid magnifying our personal struggles. Those who are depressed can experience cognitive distortion through magnification or catastrophisizing (i.e. "blowing things out of proportion"). Personally, whenever I fall into a rut, I tend to overthink and over-analyze the issue at hand. One example occurred recently when I was trying to decide whether to make a career transition. I became so self-involved in how hard I was working that my entire world revolved around this one issue, but once I started to focus on helping others, it provided clarity to overcome my own concerns. So, if you are constantly searching for things to be grateful for, the world may feel like it revolves around you which can exacerbate any existing problems. However, putting the needs of others above your own can help you put your circumstances into perspective and lead you to a resolution.

The final reason why selflessness may lead to longer-term happiness is that it puts you in the driver's seat. For the most part, you are in complete control over how much you do for others. Rather than trying to force yourself to conjure up some examples to be grateful for each day (where none may exist through no fault of your own), with selfless acts you control your own destiny. It gives you a sense of purpose knowing that each day you have the opportunity to make someone else's day a bit better. Over time, what could lead to more happiness than that?

Application to the Remote Work World

Right now it feels like everyone is going through something. Whether it's civil unrest due to racial inequality, health issues in the current pandemic, politics, or life's everyday struggles, these are undoubtedly tough times. There is a growing concern that loneliness is becoming rampant during the pandemic/remote-work experience. Some research has concluded that the lack of social interaction in the home office setting can also affect remote-work productivity. So, it's important for employers/managers to consider meaningful ways to stay connected with their Homployees and for remote workers to consciously combat loneliness. One of's "Four Simple Ways to Combat Loneliness During COVID-19" is to "create meaning in virtual work." As the article points out,"[b]y focusing on the needs and feelings of others, you can add meaning to your work relationships and pay less attention to thoughts and emotions that trigger loneliness. You can reach out to your colleagues, give some support or advice, and say thank you to those who have been nice and helpful to you at work." As noted above, I believe that simple selfless acts like these will set you down a smoother path to happiness rather than forcing yourself to squeeze out a list of items you're grateful for receiving. For more opportunities to act selflessly right now, see the list below. Also, check out what HomployeeHub is doing to make an effort to act selflessly and give back here.

5 Helpful Volunteer Resources During COVID-19: Opportunities to Act Selflessly

  1. 10 ways to safely help your community during COVID-19

  2. Volunteer Match: online national platform for local volunteer opportunities

  3. Red Cross: volunteer matching platform

  4. Feeding America: food bank, food pantry matching platform

  5. NYT: How to Volunteer or Donate to Help Others This School Year