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It’s great to be happy. It’s wonderful to feel joy and hope. But does our society overemphasize these feelings? Judging by the plethora of self-help books, escapism social media, and online “happiness hacks,” that seems to be the case. Some sources have even called happiness a “cultural obsession.”

That may not seem like a bad thing on the surface, but it can have some unintended consequences. For one, if we’re constantly focused on obtaining happiness, we may not be fully present. We’re so focused on our happiness dreams, that we forget to appreciate what we have. As behavior expert Patrick Wanis says, “We place our happiness somewhere off in the future and therefore we’re never able to enjoy where we are now because we’re always thinking we’re only going to be happy when we get to be, do, or have something.”

Additionally, the expectation to be happy all the time is frankly unrealistic. We might logically know that our friends and acquaintances are not happy at all hours of the day—their lives are not flawless and worry-free—but that doesn’t stop us from viewing them that way. We constantly see pictures on Instagram or Facebook of happy, smiling people drinking cocktails, taking vacations, posing with their families, cooking perfect dishes, and we wonder why we don’t stack up. Why isn’t my life that happy? What am I doing wrong?

This is how obtaining happiness can become more of an obsession than a healthy pursuit. But what if we were to shift our focus so that happiness isn’t the end goal, but rather a fortunate side effect? That’s where “usefulness” comes into play.

As Ralph Waldo Emerson says, “The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.”

When we make ourselves useful through daily work, volunteerism, helping others, donating our dollars or time, etc., we de-emphasize happiness. We shift the focus from ourselves to others. That’s not to say self-care isn’t important (it is! And I’ve talked about that in several blogs posts), but focusing on others and living a purpose-driven life is just as important.

And, guess what? You’ll likely feel happiness anyway!

Doing your best work, volunteering, or caring for a sick friend can all be satisfying in their own way. Even though your end goal isn’t happiness, it’s a fortunate side effect that often accompanies living within your purpose or doing good deeds.

As a nation, it may do us all a lot of good to stop obsessing over happiness and start emphasizing usefulness. What might life look like if we dared to follow this pursuit?

MARGARET SMITH IS A CAREER COACH, AUTHOR, INSIGHTS® DISCOVERY (AND DEEPER DISCOVERY) LICENSED PRACTITIONER, AND FOUNDER OF UXL. SHE HOSTS WORKSHOPS FOR PEOPLE WHO NEED CAREER OR PERSONAL GUIDANCE. 

Her new eBook is called A Quick Guide to Courage
CHECK OUT MARGARET’S ONLINE LEADERSHIP COURSE.

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“The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.” -Ralph Waldo Emerson

It seems like everywhere I turn, people are trying to promote happiness.

“Buy this, and it will change your life!”

“Lose weight and feel good about yourself!”

“Enjoy a movie/shopping spree/vacation!”

While I’m certainly not against promoting happiness, I believe we have to think a little more long-term. “Happiness products” and mindsets only give us a temporary jolt of joy. We feel good after we’ve taken a nice, rejuvenating vacation. We may feel happy when we purchase a new piece of jewelry or pair of shoes. And that authentic Italian dinner? Oh yeah, you’d better believe that gives a shot of happiness!

Again, these things are not bad, but it’s a good idea to put them in context of the “bigger picture.” What life purpose do you want to serve? What do you want your everyday legacy to be? (For the difference between “Capital L Legacy” and “lowercase l legacy,” please see my blog post on the subject).

To start thinking big picture, start shifting your focus from happiness to usefulness.

When you’re useful, you create things. You help. You generate ideas. You work toward a larger goal.

When you’re useful, you not only feel productive, you are productive.

Instead of asking yourself, “How can I be happier?” start asking, “How can I be useful?” In my experience, happiness follows. When you’re productive, assisting others, helping your company grow, or creating things, you’ll inevitably feel the satisfaction that goes with accomplishment.

Your legacy is built on usefulness, not your personal happiness. Of course I want you to be happy, but sustainably happy. Instead of scratching every happiness itch, practice making a few intentional sacrifices for the sake of being useful. This is how you will leave a lasting impression on those around you.

So, get motivated! Make yourself useful! It’s fine to start small:

  • Volunteer for a project
  • Help a co-worker who is floundering
  • Grab coffee or lunch for someone who is short on time
  • Clean your workspace
  • Send a thank you card
  • Set intentional goals and work toward them
  • Be bold—speak up at meetings and share your ideas

Being useful feels good. Productivity begets productivity. Before you know it, usefulness will become a core part of who you are—part of your legacy.

What else can you do to make yourself useful this week? I’d love to hear from you!

MARGARET SMITH IS A CAREER COACH, AUTHOR, INSIGHTS®DISCOVERY LICENSED PRACTITIONER, FOUNDER OF UXL, AND CO-FOUNDER OF THE TAG TEAM. SHE HOSTS WORKSHOPS FOR PEOPLE WHO NEED CAREER OR PERSONAL GUIDANCE. YOU CAN VISIT HER WEBSITE AT WWW.YOUEXCELNOW.COM

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