My shirt slipped off my shoulder onto the pavement while walking on a busy street recently. A few paces later I heard someone's voice yelling, sounding closer and closer until they appeared suddenly beside me holding it up to my face like a trophy. Why did he bother? In the same moment that I felt a surge of relief having not lost something, I'm sure he felt a high having done one small good deed for the day.
I know this exact feeling because I had done the same for somebody else's boarding pass just the week before. It's clear that doing something for others - no matter how big or small - has an immediate impact on your psyche. You feel like a good person carrying out your civic duties. Perhaps it also compensates for anything you've done recently that you know you shouldn't have, like snapping at the barista taking too long to make your flat white.
This rush we all know of isn't just happening in our imaginations - we are beginning to understand that endorphins and other types of mental rewards are released to give us what psychologists are calling the 'helper's high'. It's because we are wired to help others and if we aren't actively doing that in the everyday fabric of our lives, I'm convinced we will never be as happy as we are capable of being.
I had coffee over the summer with a successful lawyer who from the outside appeared to have the dream life and earns a lot of money. She confided in me that over the years she has lost passion and interest for the work she is doing as she can't see how it genuinely helps others. She asked: guess the one thing I do with my skills and time that gives me so much more satisfaction than anything in my career? I was surprised to hear that it was volunteering weekly to cook a meal which supports a local charity.
How can years of being so 'successful' in the eyes of society lead to a situation where cooking a meal for strangers becomes the prize of one's week? The impact is especially acute if some things aren't going well in life - your relationship or career - because the contrast in feelings is so strong.
Equally, if you are angry, jealous or bitter all the great spiritual traditions and the field of positive psychology are just as aligned: the best way to get rid of those feelings is to be kind or charitable to others.
Philosophers and thinkers throughout history have agreed on one overarching idea: that helping others is fundamental to a well-lived life. It makes sense then that we should try to weave this into our daily living in a sustainable, habitual way that goes beyond the quick endorphin highs we get from random acts of kindness.
One way is to build an ongoing spirit of volunteering and service into our lives. Social organiser Splice just rolled out their Active Citizens program to inspire and train individuals who want to make a difference, working to improve the lives of people living in their community.
From picking up a dropped shirt to becoming an active citizen, why is a greater commitment to helping others something we should all consider for 2018?
• Helping others answers some of our most innate needs: to connect with people, feel useful and to witness how our efforts make a positive difference.
• We increasingly lose perspective in a culture obsessed with the fake lives of celebrities and expectations of social media. Helping others reminds us of the realities of the world - that most people struggle – and that it's ok if we do too.
• Volunteering to help those worse off than us opens a powerful sense of perspective highlighting how fortunate most of us really are. You might quickly stop complaining when you realise how good you really have it and gain an increasing sense of gratitude.
• Service in your community is a good way to meet others, make friends, and bond over common beliefs and goals.
• Helping and serving increases our sense of purpose and a feeling that we are doing something meaningful with our lives.
With the bigger challenges we see around us, we often want to help but don't know how. We step over and around the homeless on Auckland's Queen street balancing the guilt of wanting to help with just getting past without eye contact.
Many great Kiwi organisations are working on the difficult problems we have around us. If you care about homelessness, start by volunteering for your local City Mission. If you care most about our beaches join a clean up with Sustainable Coastlines.
If everyone volunteered and served in their community, we could turn our country into a force for good four million strong.
• Helping others is really helping ourselves - our happiness and sense of purpose rely on us serving others
• Daily acts of kindness and goodwill spur endorphins in our bodies and minds to feel good for our deeds
• Whenever you're feeling angry, jealous or bitter towards someone or something - go out and help somebody
• Volunteering to help those worse off than you will give you a powerful sense of perspective highlighting how fortunate you are
• Become an active citizen to create bonds, use your talents and make a difference improving your community