How serving smart can transform your life and retirement

An older couple in t-shirts with volunteer printed on the front

Image: buso23/

There’s strong evidence that it’s ‘more blessed to give than receive’. But we need to learn how to give—or serve—smart. One large study in the United States showed that volunteering once a week increased people’s chances of being ‘very happy’ with their lives.

That’s worth knowing—and having.

In an interesting twist, the researchers compared their findings with income. Those who were ‘very happy’ with their lives were as happy as those who had moved from an income less than $20,000 per year (pretty much below the poverty line) to more than $75,000 a year.

Put another way, volunteering once per week can offer the same emotional lift as tripling your income. That’s impressive.

I’ve written before about how taking the time to serve others has a positive impact on our lives. Martin Seligman, widely regarded as the father of the ‘positive psychology movement’, says, ‘We scientists have found that doing a kindness produces the single most reliable increase in wellbeing (happiness) of any exercise we have tested’.

So, if we’re meant to ‘do’ kindness, how do we serve smart. Here are three ways to do just that:

1. Serve sincerely

I believe we all have a work to do and a part to play. And it isn’t so much what we do, but the spirit with which we do it that counts. Have you discovered yet the work you have been given to do—for others?

The biggest enemy we have in making our unique contribution is comparing our self to others.

When we compare our self to others, we’re likely to come to one of two conclusions: We are better or worse than them. Either will disable our personal effectiveness.

When we decide we aren’t as good as someone else, we begin to question our contribution and become distracted. Conversely, when we conclude we’re better than others and become impressed with our self, we set ourselves up for failure, because pride comes before a fall.

We need to concern ourselves with doing the creative best we can with our own lives. Keep your eyes fixed on your authentic contribution. In the words of Dr Seuss, ‘Today you are you, that is truer than true. There is no-one alive who is you-er than you!’

2. Serve with your signature strengths

An increasing number of studies show that intentionally using our ‘signature strengths’ is associated with higher levels of happiness and less depression. And, if you want to discover your signature strengths, you can take the test here.

‘Use your signature strengths in a new way’ is now some of the most common advice positive psychology for increasing people’s long-term happiness. For instance, someone who has ‘love of learning’ as their top signature strength might do an internet search on a topic they aren’t familiar with.

But the challenge needs to go a step further. Our strengths and skills are for service, not status. I’ve come to discover that the sweet spot in our life is where what we love, what we’re good at and what serves the world all intersects.

3. Serve sustainably

This is important for serving smart. Adam Grant, an organisational psychologist has compared the performance of ‘givers’ and ‘takers’ within the workplace. He discovered that ‘givers’ perform both better and worse than ‘takers’.

That sounds wrong-headed, but those who give, give and give some more tend to burn out and perform the worst. ‘Successful givers’—those who recognise that it’s OK, even necessary to also be receivers—perform the best.

Running dry isn’t good for anyone in the long term. It’s not selfish to be filled—it’s what makes giving sustainable.

Serving has obvious rewards for those being served, but the research suggests that the server also benefits. And more-so if they’re smart about it. And that works before and after retirement.


Darren Morton is the lead researcher at the Lifestyle Research Centre at Avondale College of Higher Education and the author of live More Active.

Category: Activities, Attitude, Purpose, Retirement

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