Photo by Lotte Löhr
The fourth of our daily practices, which arose organically during the first year of daily Gratitude practice, is that of daily Service.
It seems natural that when we feel abundant, our impulse is to “give back” through service. Indeed, research by Fowler and Christakis revealed that those who were recipients of abundance are statistically more likely to be generous and “give back” to others.
For many, the word “service” is laden with emotional linkages. For some, it evokes religious connotations, for others, notions of subservience. Yet, when considering the alternatives, it is arguably the best term for training ourselves in a daily practice of giving.
What is Service?
Many other words could have been chosen to express the act of giving. Kindness and charity, are both good words, but we will see that they each have implications, in common parlance that we do not wish to adopt in our practice of daily giving.
One might, in fact, wonder why not simply use the word “giving”?
Giving is a word that references the individual who is doing the action. Inherently, it contains no implication that the gift must be of benefit to the receiver. Presumably, whatever we give is fine, as long as it is a gift.
However, consider this: how many times have we received an unwanted gift and found it to be, rather than helpful, a burden? It is a burden because we have to express appreciation for something we did not want, because we have to ensure we don’t hurt the feelings of the otherwise well meaning giver, and because we need to devise a manner in which to store, use or dispose of the unwanted gift. We see this in humanitarian disasters when boxes of unwanted donations clog the transportation systems of aid, and are often useless in solving the most urgent needs of the crisis at hand.
By giving someone something that is unwanted, it is as if we are taking a stance of superiority and saying “I know what is best for you.”
Service, on the other hand, is meant to benefit the welfare of another, not to be a burden upon them. Service implies no superiority but respects the dignity of the one served by taking their needs as the guide for where and how to act.
The term Charity is a term found in most major religions, and is a virtue to be performed in order to gain the favour of ones God or create karmas. Any hope for reward, including eternal reward, is transactional. When we are transacting we are not serving. The two are fundamentally different acts with different interests as their motivation.
Moreover, the concept of charity has often been associated with a sense of pity which stems from a sense of superiority of the giver over the receiver.
Service, is a selfless gift of our time, effort and resources to benefit the welfare of another. Service implies no superiority and is tied to no particular spiritual tradition, but forms a part of practicing secular ethics.
The term kindness describes the quality of being considerate, generous and friendly. Friendliness implies a social benefit not only to the receiver but also to the giver. Whilst there is nothing wrong with the warm feelings that service engenders, there is always a danger that setting out to be ‘kind’ may include an underlying and self serving motivation to improve our welfare through social connections that make us feel good about ourselves or improves our image in the eyes of the community.
A broader sense of connection, through compassion, often fuels our will to serve, and that service creates positive effects on our social connections which promotes further service. Any positive impact on our own feelings of social connection as a result of service, must not be the motive for service.
It is possible to conduct acts of service for those with whom we have no relationship or indeed, those who will ever know we have served them. In many traditions, acts of service are conducted anonymously, in order to remove the temptation of expectation of reward through improved social standing.
Service can be for the benefit of any sentient being, known, or unknown, of present or future generations and can be for the benefit of the living planet. Through a recognition of oneness through compassion, service is performed with the humility of knowing that were it not for our own good fortune, we may be the ones in need.
Photo by Angelina Litvin
This sense of commonality with the one being served is a kind of oneness which we might call empathy. When empathy is coupled with a desire to act to alleviate, suffering, this is compassion. the Buddhists call compassion a particular sort of kindness, “loving kindness” (mettā). This special (loving) kindness – compassion – is cultivated by the Buddhists to enhance the human preponderance for altruism.
Altruism is a good synonym for service except that it implies conditions which can be challenging to sustain on a daily basis, for most individuals. To be altruistic is to act to improve another’s welfare, even at risk or cost to ourselves. Service includes a cost to ourselves of time, effort, or resources, however, altruism describes the most noble forms of service wherein we not only forego benefit, but we are willing to experience personal sacrifice in service to others.
By way of example, when we share our meal with someone who is hungry, this is a cost to ourselves and benefits the other. This is service. When we forego eating, in order that another who is hungry can eat a meal, that is a personal sacrifice. That is altruism.
The highest form of service is altruism. Through performing daily acts of service and cultivating compassion, we can train ourselves for altruism.
Summing up, we can define Service as the following:
Service is a humble and selfless act of giving, to benefit the welfare of another sentient being, known or unknown to us, of current or future generations, and is ultimately guided by the needs of the one being served. Service involves a cost, and may involve but is not dependant upon personal sacrifice.
Why Practice Service?
When one experiences abundance, cultivated by gratitude practice, it seems natural to want to share that abundance with others. One could choose to be selfish and bask in the experience of abundance, but research shows that we adapt to the level of hedonic pleasure received from the things (not the relationships) that fill our lives and our happiness cannot be sustained, all things held constant, without the addition of more “things.” This generates a never ending cycle of wanting more and more, in order to be happy. Psychologist Michael Eysenck has termed this adaptation phenomenon “the hedonic treadmill.”
Service as a key to Happiness
What can make for lasting happiness, according to research by positive psychologists, are non material qualities such as fulfilling social relationships, a sense of gratitude, and a sense of meaning in one’s life. Service generates all of these – for oneself, for the receiver and for the community.
Service not only improves the wellbeing of the receiver, it improves the wellbeing of the community. Service, by contagion, creates a more generous social circle as those who have benefitted from an act of service, tend to be more grateful and inclined themselves toward service. And while service can provide meaning to our lives, making us feel fulfilled, often it is those who have benefitted from an act of service that find meaning in their own lives by helping others.
When we focus outside of ourselves through cultivating oneness (through, for instance, compassion) and by giving (though service), we create a loop in which our own and other’s happiness becomes self sustaining.
And it isn’t just individual happiness that is in question. In his talk on Altruism in Monterray, Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard describes why cultivating compassion and service (what he calls: altruism) may be what is needed to save ourselves, our planet and our future generations.
Where do we begin?
Saving the future of mankind is a daunting task for any one of us. And whilst a life of altruism may be a noble goal to which many of us aspire, for many more of us, it is likely that the idea of daily personal sacrifice is inconceivable. Through daily service and the cultivation of our capacity for compassion, we can build our capacity for compassion.
The service contagion
We need not despair by thinking that we cannot make a difference. By cultivating compassion and performing daily acts of service, we help to create a more altruistic planet. Researchers Chistakis and Fowler, conducted a study in Massachusetts and found that among adults, all emotional states and behaviour is contagious.
Interestingly, contrary to popular belief, their findings indicated that negative emotions and behaviour were no more contagious than those that are positive. Giving (what we call “service”) was found to inspire others to do acts of service to there by a factor of three, meaning that in any network of people, a single act of service could impact on tens or even hundreds of people, some of whom the person conducting that original act of service had never met.
Research by Paul Zak found that service or giving or altruism released chemicals in the brain like oxytocin that make individuals feel good. This chemical response causes individuals to increase their acts of service in a reward loop that makes an individual more and more inclined to altruism.
Anyone who doubts that a single person can make a difference through service should consider the mathematics of these findings.
Cultivating compassion isn’t just of benefit to mankind and the planet, it benefits each of us in our own lives. According to the Stanford University Centre for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, individual benefits include an increased ability to feel compassion for self and others, increased calm and ability to cope with stressful situations, increased ability to cope with feelings of overwhelm, better relationships, better job satisfaction, and a more nurturing and fulfilling family life.
We can cultivate compassion in many ways. Developmental psychologists Rosenberg, Fabes and Hoffman have found that we can cultivate compassion in children by teaching them lessons through induction and reasoning rather than reward and punishment. As an adult, loving kindness meditation helps to develop our capacity for compassion.
Being able to increase our compassion muscles great news because according to research by Pearl and Samuel Oliner, compassionate individuals do tend to be more altruistic.
Simply Serve and Serve Simply
Daily acts of service need not always be sacrificial acts of altruism.
As long as we act from an attitude of humility, and selflessness and our action is guided by the need of the other, our daily service can have ripple effects within our families, community and world. Service can be as simple as holding the door for another person, offering directions to lost tourists, offering temporary companionship by striking up a conversation with an elderly person who is alone or simply offering a compassionate smile to a forlorn or grumpy seeming stranger on the tube. Smiling is contagious and feels good.
Spreading a smile, therefore, is one of the easiest ways to spread good feelings, as we see in this famous Ted Talk by Ron Gutman, founder and CEO of HealthTap health apps.