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.

15 replies
  1. Dave
    Dave says:

    So much depends on perspective. I work for a small company (less than 10 people) that “does good;” it was one of the things that attracted me to it. My job is to keep our technology working; when it fails, our users complain that it literally could be costing them their lives. But my day-to-day existence is a mind-numbing, crisis-driven world of cleaning up other people’s mistakes and fixing things that nobody had time to do right in the first place. Once, I complained to my CEO that I wanted a more “direct” role helping people; he observed that my role was in fact the most direct of all because the work I do keeps the service running–which enables people to help each other through our technology. He’s right. But I still hate what I do, no matter how many people it saves.

  2. Karen
    Karen says:

    my acts of altruism (true) – I always pick up paper towels that are on the floor of the UBS bathroom near the sinks so the cleaning lady doesn’t have to do it. (I use a clean paper towel to pick them up!) And it makes me feel extra good that no one sees me do it and the cleaning lady doesn’t know it’s been done.

  3. Dale
    Dale says:

    Random acts of kindness, just because . . . are a way people can and do define themselves. We all know persons who would seldom perform such actions unless the fact that they did it was visible to at least one other person.
    I believe that kindness is a personality trait and not something that one can learn in adulthood without having had a life-altering experience.
    Perhaps I’m being negative here, but while kindness is often to be found in the unlikeliest:) of places, I have seen enough in my life to suggest that unless it is an integral part of one’s personality, it is difficult to perform especially secretly.
    Thoughts????

  4. Penelope Trunk
    Penelope Trunk says:

    Dale, I liked the resarch I linked to here becuase it says that everyone has an inherent drive to be kind to others. It is true that some people don’t seem to be exhibiting that drive, but I think it’s because they are scared, or insecure, or unsure, or something is keeping them from being their true, good selves.

  5. Gary
    Gary says:

    Penelope,
    What a lot of people fail to realize is that any job can give people the feeling of helping the “greater good.” Garbage collectors can just think they are helping to keep their towns clean, and thus helping prevent illnesses from bacteria’s. Nurses can feel better about their job by, in addition to helping their patients physically, by changing sheets, IV’s etc., they can help them emotionally by making sure that the rooms have a homely appearance. Also, maybe spend some time to talk with them if they do not have that many visitors.
    Gary

    * * * * * *

    Thanks for pointing this out, Gary. There is not one type of job that is a dream job, and you give great examples to show this. The woman I cite in this post, Sonja Lyubomirsky, has actually done a lot of research to support exactly what you saying, Gary. I hope everyone takes this to heart when looking for a dream career. Often we can fulfill our real dreams just by helping others.

    -Penelope

  6. JULIA
    JULIA says:

    Thanks for pointing out the good deeds. I strongly believe it’s important to know what is good. Knowing a relationship can be struck easily and it’s another way of knowing yourself as well as disagreeing over things you dislike of those you work for or with. It’s a character nature in life that always brings out the best in an individual. Love thy neighbor as you love thy self. Rather you do something because you were told what to do or do it because you want to do it from your own good heart. It’s very simple because it is a Great Blessing to you in the eyes of the Lord.

  7. kathy coulter
    kathy coulter says:

    It’s one thing to do good because you really feel it, quite another to think that something good will happen to you because you picked paper towels up off the floor for the cleaning lady. Self absorption is a pretty tough nut to crack and requires a lot of soul searching to fix. Doing something “good” doesn’t necessarily clean up your karma.

  8. Lori
    Lori says:

    Sometimes you do a good, honor deed like helping a preveous c0-woker, to come aboard a new job with you( she was working long hours and no raises and they were demeaning her all the time) and to find out that she is now trying to get your postion and you and her have battle of the minds over this and she is always trying to undermind your reasoning and trying to make you look dum, this is my problem and she always makes the same statement” WE beter wait for the managers approval” which I am the Asst. Manager and I can act in the Managers position when absent. What can I do to change the tone with her and this issue? I am a very caring person and I thought I was doing a good deed at the time…. not sure now!!!!!

    Thanks

  9. Martha
    Martha says:

    Here’s a crazy example of someone who did good when he didn’t even have a job…or, actually, much of his life left.

    http://news.yahoo.com/s/nm/20070510/od_nm/execution_pizzas_odd_dc_1

    In my family, during the 60s and the 70s, my dad was the breadwinner/corporate lawyer guy, and my mother was a (mostly unpaid) activist, and she did, and does, boatloads of good. When my father had his 25th college reunion, he filled 2/3 of his reunion page with my mother’s accomplishments. He was insanely proud of her, as he should have been.

    You also make me wonder how different all of our (American) lives might be if we had universal health care.

  10. Kay
    Kay says:

    If you have a good paying job but work with people who are regularly petty, selfish, and have no interest in serving anyone but themselves; then what do you do? Is there some point where doing good just makes you a “tool” and more good can come out of a figurative “slap to the face” of those that are wicked?

    • Arlan Berglas
      Arlan Berglas says:

      Imagine if everyone created their own Pass It Forward Program based upon their talents to help make the world a better place. Imagine if we all judged one another not for what we are doing for a living, but rather what each of us are doing with our Pass It Forward Program. In this area we ALL start our equal!

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