The Best Way to Make Yourself Happy

I’ll have a post later this week about doing the food for the Chorale post-concert reception on Friday, but for today I have a couple of quotations for you and some observations about doing good deeds for other people and how helpful that is for the person performing said deeds.

First, from the comic Patton Oswalt, whose wife died suddenly in April 2016:

“Something that really pulls you out of grief is helping other people. . . . Anything to get you out of your head.”

He’s saying this (on a Fresh Air segment from NPR) about a situation that arose in which two people recognized him on the sidewalk as he was waiting for a car to pick him up on the day of his wife’s funeral. These people had no idea what was going on, and they wanted a selfie with him. So he decided, in the moment, to just let them do it. They obviously didn’t know what was going on and were just excited to have recognized him. If you listen to the segment you’ll hear him describe how that picture must have looked: two happy people and him looking completely ashen. I’m sure that those (rather thoughtless, let’s be honest) people realized later what they’d done and were mortified, but at least they weren’t mortified there in public.

Then, from this morning’s “A Little Happier” podcast with Gretchen Rubin, which echoed Oswalt’s story with one about a woman who had a series of misfortunes: firing from a job, rejection from a grad school application, breakup with her boyfriend. How, Gretchen asked her, did she get through this tough time? Here’s what she said:

“You know, I was practically addicted to doing good deeds for other people. It was the only way I could make myself feel like I wasn’t a total loser.” (Listen to the entire podcast—it’s only about a minute long—here.)

Both of these stories raise an interesting question: Does the good deed “count” if you’re actually doing it for yourself, just to make yourself feel better? Getting into rather murky waters here, I guess.

Obviously, a supposedly good deed that’s really being performed for the purpose of manipulation doesn’t do anyone any good. Think of the abusive boyfriend who buys his girlfriend flowers to get her to take him back. Or even the favor done only out of a sense of obligation: he did so-and-so for me, so I need to do something in return. And there’s what I call the “forced favor,” in which the do-gooder is determined to perform the deed even if the recipient doesn’t want it. I believe Dickens’ novels feature several characters like this, usually women who go around and “visit the poor,” thus injecting dread into these people’s lives. “Oh no! Here she comes again!”

All that being said, it’s still true that focusing on others is the surest way to get yourself out of an emotional hole. How can it be a bad thing if you make two people feel good, yourself and the other person? You don’t do good deeds in order to make yourself miserable!

I’m reminded as I write this of the weeks that our son, Gideon, was in the hospital being treated for cancer. The nurses were incredible: bright, funny, friendly, compassionate. I wanted to do something to show my appreciation, so I decided to give each of them a copy of my book with a note of thanks. They were thrilled. I was thrilled. I don’t think it was a burdensome gift, as some unfortunately are. (In fact, I feel another post coming on, all about the subject of that type of gift. Watch for it later.) My mood was lightened by the thought that I had shown them how much they meant to us.

There’s a terribly sappy poem titled “Do Something for Somebody, Quick!” that sort of fits into this post, but I can’t bring myself to include it. However, when I looked it up I ran into this gem from the old “Rocky and Bullwinkle Show,” truly a classic for all the ages. Watch and laugh!


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