In Service of Happiness

We are nearing the end of Quest2015, which means we are actually just facing the beginning of and the implementation of the quest in a new year. Prompt 11 comes to us from visionary Tara Mohr. It’s short and sweet, and very hard to crack. Let’s see if I can meet this prompt where it is, and offer an equally succinct response (I doubt it).

How can I be of highest service?

Much like #MissYou, service is hard to unpack. I keep thinking that all the thinking and all the questions will help make things clearer.

What is service?
Is it self-less or can it be selfish?
How does ‘highest’ modify the concept?
Is service supposed to be ‘not-for-profit’?
Is service for the benefit of others, or can it be for the benefit of self?

Here’s my tentative response:

To consciously practice happiness, even if it feels selfish.

The idea unpacked: Service has always meant service to, or on behalf of, others. Make the world a better place kind of stuff, serving those in need sort of stuff. It was my personal mission through college and my twenties, still now to some extent. Non-profits, teaching, voter registration, public policy, recycling, bike commuting, tutoring, organizing, AmeriCorps.

The aims are good, but let’s face it, better is a subjective pursuit. And the actions, although altruistic, still easily fit into the packaging of selfish. I was choosing the ways in which I was acting in service, they were things I enjoyed. Self-soothing also, as a response to the enormous privilege I’ve been granted in this life. I feel responsible to be of service, but how much of that is to assuage the guilt or advantage of my what I have been provided in this life? I can’t say.

Help me out Questers, is this faulty logic? Is there any basis to the argument that service to others can be, or is,  selfish? Is there a good synonym for selfish that I am missing here? Egoistic?

So what about turning the idea of service on its head? What if we verb it up? Like to service the car, the lawn mower, the tiller, the self. To make service self-focused, selfish, egoistic. Like maintenance for your own sweet personal little self?

In rolling service through my mind, I kept crossing the river of selfish and happiness, if you couldn’t tell. This must be where the gold nugget of this prompt is buried this winter. Somewhere below a crust of ice, among rocks and grit and frigid running waters. It’s time to test my beliefs about selfishness, which are somehow flowing with the current of happiness. Time to unpack more bags.

Maybe this is unrelated, but I think this idea is traveling to the same destination. It’s time for me to unharness some of my previous beliefs around happiness, because they are so linked to fear of selfishness and guilt. Primarily, those ideas that make me believe being happy (whatever that means) and striving to raise up that personal happiness, are somehow inherently wrong, selfish or should be avoided. That somehow I don’t deserve to be happy. We all deserve to pursue the happy, content, joy-filled, satisfied. Don’t we?

This epiphany struck thanks to a line from a recent post that kept running through my mind.

Her happiness was a proxy for my own.

The line was written about the dog and her joy. How much I want to bring her happiness, and feel responsible for it. To see that goofy dog smile on her jowls as she gallops. And how her happiness makes me happy. And that’s where I pause now. I clearly paused there when writing the previously.

That’s how I feel to see her run through the pasture here, or anywhere. My freedom comes from hers, and my heart is happy. The question is, why don’t I feel I owe myself, or deserve, the same freedom? Maybe Rabia has the answer for me.

Does her happiness make me happy? Does providing for her happiness make me happy? Or do I just dare not get close to creating my own happiness, and resort instead to crafting second-degree happiness for others – as a proxy for my own? I’m spinning these ideas around my own happiness, and it seems connected so deeply with service. It may be, quite possibly, I don’t feel I deserve to sprinkle myself with happiness. I don’t deserve it, it’s not useful, it’s not acting in service of others, there is no higher purpose to it. That somehow, asking for, being, or bestowing myself with happiness is something that brings guilt, especially if it’s accrued at the expense of others.

All I needed was to arrive here and begin to unpack the contents of the mystery happiness suitcase to recognize I’ve met the meaning for this prompt. My highest service for 2015 is fixing the brakes, cleaning the air filters, changing the oil and tuning up my happiness-mobile. This will be my highest self-service. I may need to learn some skills, take a training, acquire some new tools to undertake this brazen act of self-maintenance, but I am looking forward to it.

So watch out 2015, you’re going to be the year of the happiness highest service. Of goodbye to guilt for my own joy. I will own the happiness I manifest in myself when I give to others, but that won’t be the only happiness, contentment or joy I experience. This is a year to avoid the happiness proxy, to cast away the guilt, and build a space for my own happiness right inside my heart suitcase. Practice. Practice. Practice.

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5 Comments

  1. Great questions! I too have been a “love/serve others before/instead of yourself” junkie. So much of the message of loving self and loving others had been an either/or or First/then kind of thing. It seems artificial to me now. I started changing it to both her and me when I shopped for my daughter. If I bought for her, no matter how small, I bought something for me, too. If in my work I nurtured and played with a kid, I imagined my “little self” playing and being nurtured, too. It seems that if I look at interactions that look like only giving, I am missing or ignoring the part of the interaction where I am learning, being respected, or being given to. Several times I’ve been on a noble high horse and thought it was my job to save… A poor neighborhood, a poor state, a poor country, a poor person, and Thank God I got knocked off before I did any damage!!! This serving is truly a give and take, it’s letting you lean on me because I have leaned on others and will need to do so again. It’s the feeling that our good deeds go into an aquifer along with all other good deeds and acts of giving and service. Then I draw from the waters when I am need and give what I have to give. No better or worse than anyone else- just a season of drawing from the well or replenishing it. Certainly I had to get far away from the idea I had to serve and take of others because I hated myself or thought I was unworthy, or that serving others would bring me joy and could be used in lieu of looking within and healing my own wounds. Then, service can become an escape, almost an addiction to something external we use to fill an internal emptiness

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    1. Wendy, thank you for sharing these thoughts. “This serving is truly a give and take, it’s letting you lean on me because I have leaned on others and will need to do so again. It’s the feeling that our good deeds go into an aquifer along with all other good deeds and acts of giving and service. Then I draw from the waters when I am need and give what I have to give.” I appreciate this so much!

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  2. “Is there any basis to the argument that service to others can be, or is, selfish?” This is a good question. And a BIG, HUGE, HAIRY question. I think it can be selfish, but I also think selfishness is a loaded term. It carries negative connotations for sure, and I think that in our culture, we’re trained to think of self-focus in contradictory ways. We’re supposed to be self-aware and yet self-sacrificing. I love this post, and your focus on happiness.

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  3. I think about the importance of happiness this way: happy people (as in people who are thriving and experiencing well-being) are healthier, more productive, more engaged, more flexible, more creative. Happiness, in this sense, isn’t all rainbows and lollipops as experiencing negative emotion is part of the well-being package. Or so the research says. If this is true, then when we’re happy, we have have more to give and need less care from other people or systems. So assuring our own happiness, assuming we’re not narrowly self-centered or dismissive of others, is a way to assure our ability to give back. Not selfish at all. I would say that committing ourselves to our own happiness is committing ourselves to those around us.

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