It really affected me. The film features psychologists who have been studying what makes people happy in all different parts of the world. What they've found is that a whopping 50% of happiness is genetic; that we are born with a sort of set point of happiness. Another 10% is life circumstances, like your job, income, family situation, etc. (We often like to think this comprises 100% of our happiness, but it's actually very little.)
The remaining 40% is up to us. That's the part we can control. We can actually change the physical structure of our brains (a newly-discovered phenomenon called neuroplasticity) to create more and stronger dopamine and seratonin receptors, thereby becoming happier people.
What can we do to create more happiness? The researchers studied that, too. There were the obvious answers like exercise, time with friends, etc. But the one type of action that created the most consistent, dramatic, and lasting happiness in the people studied was (drumroll). . .
acts of kindness.
So this got me thinking. Perhaps I'm looking at this road trip/exploration/finding a new place to live journey all wrong. I've been looking for a place that would make me happy; a place I'd love to be. There is certainly something to be said for finding a community that matches up with my values, but what if I shifted my search focus slightly to others?
What if, instead, I asked the question, "Is this a community in which I could be of service? Do I have gifts and talents that could bring others happiness in this place?"
That puts nearly every town on the map! Now, I want to keep in mind that in order to be of service to others, I need to keep my own cup full, and doing that will require a solid, supportive group of friends and plenty of outdoor beauty in which I can hike, bike, swim, and play. So really, my goals are quite complementary to one another.
|(image credit: blog.3dcart.com)|
I decided to put this into action right away. The girl I'm staying with had to drop off some resumes at personal care homes for jobs she's applying for this week. I asked her if I could tag along and see if the places had any volunteer opportunities. Here's how it went down:
"Hi, do you have any volunteer opportunities right now?" I ask the smiley brunette mom-type behind the desk.
"Well yes, you'll need to fill out a volunteer application and complete a background check." She starts shuffling through papers on her desk.
"Ok I'm happy to do that. It's just that I'm only in town for a week and was hoping I could use some of my free time to come in and visit with some of your residents. Just talk to them, really. Do I still need all the paperwork for that?"
"Yes, unfortunately you do," she replies. "But I might be able to get the background check in two days if you haven't lived too many places.
"I've lived all over the place and don't even have a local address right now to give you," I sigh.
She smiles politely and retracts the application. "I'm sorry, dear."
"Does it make any difference that I've been teaching for eight years and was just the head of a middle school back in Maryland?"
She smiles again. "I'm sorry. You understand these rules are to protect our residents. I can't help you out at this time."
"Sure, sure," I say dejectedly. "I understand. Thanks anyway." I smile my thanks and go lean against the wall opposite the front desk to wait for Emily while she's in her interview.
Then I hear, "Hey young lady, that's a very pretty dress you have on. Come here and let me see." The crackled voice of an old woman calls me over to the common area where five residents are gathered in some chairs.
I walk over to her, glancing backwards at the woman at the front desk. She is turned around looking in a file cabinet. She doesn't see me go. I shuffle quickly past the desk and pull up a chair with the residents.
Before long, I am hearing all of their stories. Most of them grew up on farms in Montana or Wyoming. The women talked of helping their mothers cook dinner, chopping the heads off of chickens, milking the cows, and even winning a horse race for a prize. One man was a math teacher on an indian reservation and had some great stories to tell as well. They all seemed quite lucid. We all laughed a lot.
When Emily came out of her interview, the residents and I had just broken out into song together. She came over and said, "Well I was feeling badly that I left you out here but I guess you're just fine!"
Documentary hypothesis: confirmed.