We have seen that we have an innate need to contribute to the tribe and feel valued for our contribution. That helps us feel connected with the tribe . . . and with humanity. Then, like a bird within a flock of a thousand other birds, we feel safe. Result: core happiness.
So, how do we satisfy our need to contribute?
It isn’t hard.
I was in a Los Angeles bus when a man next to me began talking to me earnestly about the Kennedy assassination, and lots of other things, all jumbled up. I figured I might as well listen. I failed to understand his underlying message, but let him know I was listening. I could not ask questions because I could not get a word in.
After fifteen minutes the man pressed the button and the bus pulled into the next stop. He stopped talking, looked me in the eye and said softly, ‘Thank you’, and then he got off the bus.
His ‘Thank you’ made me I realise I had given him a gift. I had listened to him. I had listened to him speak on subjects he considered vitally important. It dawned on me that perhaps no-one had actively listened to that mentally ill man for a long time. Why would they? He made no sense.
For a few brief minutes that man had felt he was contributing (telling me something important), and he had felt valued because I had listened. For those few minutes he had felt connected with humanity.
‘Quietly sitting and listening to someone sends a powerful message of acceptance to them. They may feel that the whole world is wrong, but if one person accepts them unconditionally they may begin to feel more accepting of themselves.’
Gary Van Warmerdam.
For six months I had a job in the public service that was so unnecessary I told them they should sack me and get rid of the position. But they didn’t listen. They kept me even though the job was pointless.
As useful as an ashtray on a motorbike.
I enjoyed the job. The people were a hoot to work with and in some vague way I still felt I was contributing. After all, I was efficient in my pointlessness. When I plonked a pile of completed, useless files on my supervisor’s desk I felt a sense of satisfaction. I felt like the King of Productivity.
All this means: it’s not hard to satisfy our need to contribute. Our effort doesn’t have to be game-changing. The person who feels compelled to compile a collection of blowflies thinks they’re contributing; so does the infant who helps her parents pick tomatoes; and so did that man on the bus who felt he had something important to say. The volunteers, the ardent workers, all feel they’re contributing.
All we need is a little acknowledgment. A few minutes of someone’s time, or a word of thanks. A plaque in a zoo might say: “Tim Smith generously donated this elephant.” But if the zoo didn’t put up that plaque to thank Tim, Tim might take his elephant elsewhere. Tim feels good about his contribution, and the plaque helps him feel that his contribution has not been taken for granted.
You don’t need me to tell you how to make a contribution – that will come to you naturally. But there is one big thing we can do: we can identify our inclinations, and pursue them.
See you in the next chapter.