What's going on here?

I've made a commitment: to do one good deed per day. Large or small, it doesn't matter. Self-sacrificing or not, extraordinary or mundane, it doesn't matter. Just one thing every day, that's all.

The more I do good, the better I feel about myself. Truly, to benefit others is to benefit yourself. I hope this journal may inspire others who also yearn to do good. So join me on this journey, if you will, and think about the difference you can make in your own life.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Today is Martin Luther King Day: a Day of Service

If you enjoy this, please pass it on. Post this essay to your blog, email it to your friends, anything to reach as many people as possible on Martin Luther King Day.


How to be happy in a tight economy? On MLK Day, be less materialistic, more charitable

Today, as I write this, it is Martin Luther King Day in America. Barack Obama has called for a day of service today. At this hour when all anxieties focus on the economy, and the entire world feels the pressure, what difference can we make? How can we improve happiness in difficult times? To answer this, we need to remember that the goal is not to help the economy per se, but ultimately to help the people influenced by it. Considering this, two questions arise.

1. Is it really that bad for you?

Some may answer with a legitimate "yes." Others, not so much. Whatever your answer, think about this: can you remember a time when you had less, and were still happy? Chances are you can think of a time, perhaps when you were just out of high school, or even back when you were a child, when ten dollars seemed like a lot of money, because you had so little money of your own. And yet you were happy. Or maybe you can think of a time when you were making do with very few material conveniences, even though money was not in short supply. And even with few material comforts, you were happy. Personally, I was never happier than when I was a student living on very little spending money, eating the cheapest food I could find, and working a low-wage job part of the time while studying the rest. I was happy because I knew I was doing something worthwhile. So economics alone does not mandate unhappiness. A tightening budget that causes you to cancel your cable or sell your car is not by itself cause for anxiety, because there was probably a time when you lacked those things but didn't lack happiness. As Marcus Aurelius wrote:
"Subtract your own notions of what you imagine to be painful, and then your self stands invulnerable."

A change in attitude can help anyone in this tough economy. Yet for some it is not enough. Perhaps they can no longer afford the schooling they need, or can't support their children. Economic constraints are legitimately damaging their happiness. What can be done for the economy to help those who do have it bad? This brings me to the second question.

2. How can you help those for whom it is bad?

So far it seems clear that you can help yourself by changing your attitude, being happier on less. In short, you can help yourself by being less materialistic. And yet, what is it they say helps bring back a struggling economy?--consumers spending money. Thornton Wilder wrote:

"Money is like manure; it's not worth a thing unless it's spread around encouraging young things to grow."

So if we all consume less, won't that make things worse? Won't we improve our happiness at the expense of those genuinely hurt by the economy?

This makes it clear that living happier on less will not solve the larger problem. It's also necessary to revive the economy, recover confidence in loans and investments, and support struggling markets. Spending money actually helps. So how can we be less materialistic and better spenders at the same time?

The answer: don't spend the money on yourself. Spend it on those who really need it. Give to charities. Loan to friends who want to start new businesses, but can't afford it right now. Support students so they can get the schooling they need to be tomorrow's productive citizens.

Spend less on yourself, more on others

We all need to take a hard look at question number one, Is it really that bad for you? If you can in fact be happier on less, then take the money you save and apply it to question number two, How can you help those for whom it is bad? In this way, you can be happier still. Not only will you become happier by foregoing distress over material discomforts, but you will also become happier knowing that you are helping others. You gain twice.

I am not encouraging massive spending. Large-scale expenditure like the multibillion-dollar bank bailout is a matter for governments and the extremely wealthy. Most of us can only afford small amounts, but a lot can be done with a little. Consider how much you can spare, and spend accordingly. Those who can spare a lot should consider philanthropic loans and investments. The majority who can spare only a little may consider donations to food banks and shelters, to support those who have lost their jobs and homes. Those who can spare nothing at all may volunteer their time at shelters and soup kitchens. In doing so, you'll be happier knowing you've done a good deed for others.

One tip: don't give out of guilt, and don't give so much you can no longer support yourself. If you burn yourself out, you'll be of no use to anyone. Keep yourself viable, and keep your giving sustainable. Simply appraise your situation with honesty, and determine how much you can give and still be happy. Give not to ease your conscience, but to cultivate happiness in yourself and others.

At this time of economic hardship and Obama's call to service, at this time honoring Martin Luther King and all that he gave for civil rights, we need to give as wisely as possible. Remember the ten dollars that at one time meant so much to you (and perhaps means a lot right now)? If everyone in the United States spent ten dollars--and that's estimated at over three hundred million people--that would be three billion dollars. Imagine that spent on charity for people who really need it, instead of excess comforts for those who don't. While the government gives billions to banks, let's give tens to charity. Or, let's give time. Whatever you can give, it will make a tangible difference to someone. And it will make a difference to yourself. Confucius wrote:

"He who wishes to secure the good of others, has already secured his own."

That's true. And Anne Frank would add:

"No one has ever become poor by giving."

Ultimately, giving makes you richer, by increasing your happiness.

Remember too that this is not just about America. As I write this I am in Japan, and there is a saying here: "If America sneezes, Japan will catch a cold." Economies are interdependent, and the current slump is being felt all over. No matter where you are, your service affects the entire world. Local action makes a global difference.

If you are reading this on Martin Luther King Day, why not serve? If you're reading this after the fact, your continuing service will make an ongoing difference. Service opportunities are available at www.MLKDay.gov, or you can choose to serve in your own way.

Be happy. Spread happiness. Give.

Please pass this on

To encourage service on Martin Luther King Day, copy and distribute this essay as widely as possible. If you enjoyed reading it, please pass it on.

Marcus Aurelius quote from Meditations, 8.40
Thornton Wilder quote from The Matchmaker
Confucius quote from Analects, 6.28 (or 6.30, depending on edition)
Anne Frank quote from Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl
Population figures from "United States" article at wikipedia.com
Image "Martin Luther King Jr." by Dave McKeague

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