At some point in their work life most people start wondering about the bigger questions: How can you support yourself with enjoyable work and still make the world a better place?
I have had discussions about this topic with my husband. He was working at a grassroots agency that struggles to save people from poverty and prison. I told my husband that since I was supporting our family while he worked for a nonprofit that pays peanuts, I was doing enough to save the world.
He said, “You're not saving the world. You're saving us.”
“I know,” I said. “I'm an enabler. I'm enabling you to save the world.”
He said, “You can do what you want. But grassroot action makes an immediate difference.”
Grassroot action. This is the kind of language you hear all the time if you live with an activist.
To be honest, I wouldn’t be able to handle seeing the sadness my husband saw every day: Like the juvenile offender who was not going to school because the prison forgot. But I still want to make sure my work has meaning.
And I am not alone. In the book, The Altruism Question, psychologist Daniel Batson reviews approximately twenty-five studies that all show that people have an inherent need to help others out of a sense of altruism — to make other people feel better. And Stephan Bodian, who often writes about Buddhism, explains, “Each of us must find our own right livelihood by following our hearts while facing the reality of our unique situation.” What I take this to mean is that we all want to do good, but you have to take care of yourself first, then your family, and then the world. Most of us have enough trouble with the first two.
For some people right livelihood will mean a life of environmental activism. For other people, it might take the form of creativity. “For many of us, it might simply involve doing what we can, at the jobs we currently have, to add to the world’s collective store of peace, love, happiness and material well-being,” writes Bodian in Yoga Journal.
In case you are wondering, my husband is typical of social activists in that he has a spouse working in a more lucrative sector. We found this out the hard way, when we tried to depend on his job for insurance. The human resource person actually told my husband, “The premiums are sky-high because no one here needs to use the insurance.”
Fortunately for those who do need insurance, the business world offers a surprising range of opportunities to honor one’s need for right work. I have mentored people who have been able to make huge changes in their lives, and I have changed corporate policies to accommodate single mothers and gay job applicants. These have been high points in my career because I felt like I was doing good.
But you don’t actually have to make a monumental contribution to the world in order to feel good about yourself. Small acts of kindness add up.
Sonja Lyubomirsky, professor of psychology at University of California at Riverside, found that being kind makes you feel more positive about yourself and the world. She has an exact prescription for how to be kind that reminds me of my husband doing good at the grassroot:
“In our daily lives, we all perform acts of kindness for others. These acts may be large or small and the person for whom the act is performed may or may not be aware of the act. Examples include feeding a stranger’s parking meter, donating blood, helping a friend with homework, visiting an elderly relative, or writing a thank you letter.” In order to optimize the good feelings that come from good acts, Lyubomirsky’s research indicates that you should load up your acts of kindness so you do five in one day.
You can follow these instructions from any job, no matter how big or small. Write a note to yourself on one day each week, and count your deeds until you get to five. Your job will bring deeper meaning to your life because you will be using it to directly cause positive feelings in the world.
As for me and my husband, I am never going to work in a prison, and he’s never going back to corporate life. But we are striking a balance. Winston Churchill once said: “Make a living by what you get, make a life by what you give.” The best careers can combine both, and this is true of a marriage, too.