Serving Others: The Key to Great Leadership, Joy, and Lifelong Happiness – a Veteran’s Perspective
By Chuck Cusumano
On this Veterans Day, I want to discuss service; specifically, what it means to serve.
To serve is to give.
Read that again and let it sink in. Serving is giving: giving your time, your talents, your treasures, or yourself is what serving is wholly about. To become a servant to your fellow man is where true joy and true happiness live.
With the negative headlines dominating the news these days, it can often feel like we live in a world where humanity’s bad outweighs the good, in a society devoid of giving, and under a guidance lacking in servant leadership.
However, consider this: we are biologically hardwired to give and to serve each other.
When we give or help someone, our brain rewards us with a special internal concoction, most closely comparable to a runner’s high when exercising—but instead, it is more like a Helper’s High: a euphoria that happens when you serve another.
The Helper’s High is the process of your brain releasing the chemicals that promote trust (oxytocin) and social acceptance (serotonin). Effectively, when one person genuinely serves or helps another, they are receiving a chemical cocktail of internal trust and acceptance.
For so many people, feeling trusted and accepted by society or within our own social groups equates to happiness or joy. It’s the same reason we now live in a generation seeking attention, likes, and praise on social media. However, it is far more attainable, enduring, and rewarding to become someone who serves others, rather than just shooting for a moment of fleeting fame or notoriety through a double tap.
Why? Because service is chemically good.
However, not only is serving others chemically good for us; it is also relationally good. After all, effective service first requires thinking of others.
In the short run, it is possible that people can find success through self-centered thinking: an individual can become popular, successful in their career, and maybe even find temporary happiness. But a constant focus on oneself will typically lead to a lonely life.
This type of thinking is not that uncommon. For this argument, we can – once again – reference social media. Our society currently rewards us with mechanisms that teach us popularity and building our “personal brands” should be the core of our lives. In the past, it was harder for us to obtain and retain that chemical cocktail of good feelings because we did not have a means as prolific as the internet. But genuinely thinking about others, getting to know people, and serving them takes time and effort—more time and effort than opening an account on your favorite social media platform and requesting that others follow along.
Social media will give you that oxytocin and serotonin, but – again – it is only a momentary high and remains devoid of genuine interpersonal connection. In other words, it gives you the right stuff—it is just not the best way to get it.
Becoming a Genuine Servant & Finding Lasting Happiness: How to Work on Putting Others Before Yourself
So, how do we get this “right stuff” the “right way”? How do we achieve happiness that lasts beyond the fleeting recognition of a “like”? How do we become servant leaders?
Psychologists tell us that those who want to become better servants can focus on the following:
Become a better listener. Listening helps us access different perspectives and gives us the ability to better understand those around us. Further, it helps us realize that it is not all about us all the time—it allows us to see the areas where we may be of value to the people we are listening to.
Become more empathetic. Attempt the difficult task of “walking in someone else’s shoes.” Listen to their stories, list out how they may have felt, and do not be afraid to talk about feelings. Ask other people what their emotions are, how they are feeling, and what is on their minds—this widens our perspective, giving us a chance to develop a better understanding of the people around us.
Loosen your grip on control. In other words, do your best to stop trying to control everything, and everyone, around you. This can ultimately strain or break our relationships. To serve someone is to let them be who they are, to accept them as they come, and to not try to control them. We assist when they need us, and we cannot know when that is unless we listen to them—trying to control the outcome will not help.
Observe what gives you joy. Then, question it. Look at the areas in your life where you have a habit of seeking acceptance and trust. Are those things really giving you lasting joy? Or is it just a temporary fix? One of the best resources for better understanding this and to retrain your brain is Habits of a Happy Brain by Loretta Breuning, Ph.D.
Be grateful. Start each and every day by making a list of the things and people you are grateful for in your life. Being grateful is a unique emotion—it is different than being thankful. See our blog here to gain a better understanding of what we mean. Ultimately, if we are reflecting on how much we have received, it will help us to think less about how much we believe we deserve.
Make a list of small things you can do to help others. Science shows that it is not just the person who is doing the giving that receives that chemical response—the receiver gets one, too. The more we do it, the more our brain rewires itself to desire that exact response. Make a small list of tiny things you can do to help someone else. Then, act upon them! At first, it might be tempting to look for reciprocity—but the true act of giving is not to receive anything in return. Your brain will give you the reward.
Ask for help. So many of us view asking for help as a sign of weakness and inability to care for ourselves. But asking for help says nothing about our failures and everything about our strengths. When we ask for help, we give someone a chance to be the giver. We give someone else a chance to harvest that same joy.
Before we can ever dream of becoming servant leaders, we need to be servants first.
If the quotes at the bottom of this post are not enough to convince you of that, I encourage you to interview any number of senior citizens in your local retirement home. It is highly likely that for them, joy came in the moments they spent with their people. In my experience and discussions, it is often how they served one another that created a beautiful story in the first place.
Be joyful. Be successful. Be willfully and beautifully in service to all those who cross your path. We will not know the reason they are in our lives until they are no longer there—and true joy lies in being a servant to those you meet.
On Veteran’s Day, from a Veteran, I say this: I would have willingly given my own life for those that I served with and for all of those Americans who we represented in our service to our country. That act of service was my joy and happiness.
“We make a living by what we get; we make a life by what we give.” —Winston Churchill
“The purpose of human life is to serve and show compassion and the will to help others." —Albert Schweitzer
“If you want happiness for an hour, take a nap.
If you want happiness for a day, go fishing.
If you want happiness for a year, inherit a fortune.
If you want happiness for a lifetime, help somebody.”
"For it is in giving that we receive.” —Saint Francis of Assisi
"The sole meaning of life is to serve humanity.” —Leo Tolstoy
“The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away.” —Pablo Picasso
“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service to others.” —Mahatma Gandhi