Should we live for ourselves, or should we live for others? Religions and philosophers have been mulling over this question for centuries. I’ve always tended to agree with Ayn Rand and her school of thought—that we must find what makes us each happy, rather than live solely for others or doing solely what we’re told is the right thing to do.
In fact, I’ve read many surveys and studies that attempt to discover what would make people happier—fulfillment, or money. In all cases, the majority of people answered that it was fulfillment, not money, that would bring them happiness in life. I was skeptical at first—after all, how many of us could find fulfillment in money?!—until I looked at the questions for myself. And being honest with myself, fulfillment does matter to me more than money.
So while I do live my life for myself—seeking truth through writing and sharing the writing and thinking process with others, I find that altruism and helping others often does bring happiness.
Not always, but often enough.
It’s college decision season, and many of the seniors I teach are starting to hear back from the schools to which they’ve applied. Many of them consulted me about their college entrance essays. These personal essays are difficult to write: when writing about oneself, it’s easy to lose perspective. Sometimes all it takes is a neutral party to assess the essay and determine where it has veered off course. When the students approached me with their essays, I spent about five minutes providing verbal feedback on the essays. It was no big deal to me. In fact, I had quite forgotten about it.
But recently, several students have come to me, smiles plastered on their faces and eyes tearful, with genuine thanks for the help—informing me that they were admitted to the college of their choice. While of course it was their hard work over the last twelve years that got them in, it’s nice to be reminded sometimes that even spending five minutes helping someone else can have a life-long impact on them.
With our world of technology causing (physical) social isolation and conditioning us to expect instant gratification, it’s nice to be reminded sometimes that we all matter to each other. And sometimes the smallest act of kindness can have the biggest impact—even if we never find out about it.
It makes me wonder: as clichéd as it sounds, I’ll bet if we all performed just one act of kindness a day, the happiness we spread could be exponential. We may never know about it personally, but the world will certainly be a better place for it.