The secret to substantial and enduring happiness, I have discovered, has nothing to do with putting yourself first, nurturing your inner child, or any of the many other forms of narcissism so popular among today’s pop psychologists. As someone who has spent too much time in the vain (and I do mean vain) pursuit of self-satisfaction, I am here to tell you that fulfillment in life is usually about doing less for yourself and more for others.
This is not a revolutionary concept. It was, it seems to me, the essential message of Christ and Gandhi, to name just two. “Happiness and fulfillment in life,” they seemed to have been saying,” will come to you not when you are making yourself the center of your universe but when you forget yourself and look outside.” You may know that already. And you may be much further along in making it part of your life than I am in making it part of mine.
When I think about the happy people I admire, they are invariably those who are always looking out for others. I’m not speaking of missionaries and professional do-gooders but of ordinary people who make it a habit to care about those around them. They are the people who ask you how you are doing and care about your answer. They visit you when you are ill, and give you little gifts or kind words when you need them.
When involved in a negative conversation (particularly one that involves gossip or badmouthing), they find something positive to say. They are ordinary people with the same number of problems that other ordinary people have — yet, they don’t ask you to pity them. When they see you limping because of an injured knee, they don’t tell you about their aching backs. They give you sympathy and recommend helpful treatments.
When everyone gets up from the holiday meal and rushes off to have an after-dinner drink or smoke, they linger with the host — helping out by cleaning the dishes or wiping off the table. They know the names of your children. They remember your birthday. They know how you take your coffee. And though they want you to be better and stronger and more successful than you are, they never give you the feeling that they are unsatisfied with what you are, in fact, right now. I know people like that. And I am fortunate enough to be married to one of them.
They are also, I am really blessed to say, in my extended family and among my closest friends. And although I don’t say so enough, I am always astonished by their goodness and humbled by their strength. I am not one of these good people. I am a living composite of every bad habit, obnoxious inclination, and selfish reflex known to man. But lacking those qualities makes them all the more admirable to me. And makes me want to be, a little bit each year, a better man.
So that’s my 10th big resolution this year — as it was last year: to be a better person. I invite you to make the same New Year’s resolution — to spend less time thinking about your own happiness and more time trying to make other people happy. Start with your immediate family. Your spouse and children, mother and father, aunts and uncles, and nieces and nephews were not brought into this world to listen to and/or solve your problems.
That’s your job. Resolve to spend less time complaining to them and more time listening to their complaints. Do share your dreams and ambitions with them, but don’t talk too long. And be sure you give them the time and attention they need to share their dreams and ambitions with you. Make your friends happy too. Smile when you see them. Listen to their stories. Give them the advice they want and shut up when they don’t want any. Become the person they turn to when the chips are down. Learn to love their peccadilloes (see “Word to the Wise,” below) and encourage them to overcome their faults.
Above all, be loyal to them. Be a reliable and steady resource for your business colleagues. Help them achieve their goals — not because you want their loyalty but simply because you care about them and want them to succeed. And do something for someone you don’t know — a stranger you come upon, a foster child, or a sick or poor person who can benefit from your help. Spend time and money.
Make this outward focus a natural part of your daily life. Do it purposefully and deliberately — by beginning with a set of resolutions and then transferring them to your weekly and daily task lists — till it becomes second nature to you. This is not the kind of resolution one can make and achieve in a single year. It will be on my list next year. Perhaps it will be on your list too.[Ed. Note. Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]