33 Ways To Be More Selfless… And Experience Greater Happiness
Illustration by Mr Simon Landrein
Selflessness is willingly and authentically enhancing someone’s life by meeting their needs, expecting nothing in return – though it’s always a bit of a perk if you get a reward as a byproduct, too. Because being nice is nice (especially over the festive season). But it’s also scientifically shown (read about it here) to be one of the best ways to experience happiness, which might explain why it is a central tenet of religions and recovery programmes. Use these 33 strategies to help unleash your altruistic side and boost your wellbeing in the process.
Make a reverse advent calendar
Setting up a “reverse advent calendar” alongside your traditional chocolate one in the workplace can help those most in need. Position an empty box near an office focal point and ask colleagues to join you in adding an item of non-perishable food to it every day until Christmas. When it’s full, take it to a local food bank.
Give blood or plasma
The absence of some antibodies in men’s blood makes it easier to use in blood products such as plasma and platelets – enabling you to give the gift of life by sacrificing just 20 minutes of your day. You’ll get free biscuits and after you donate and a text message to tell you which hospital has put your blood to good use. Try giveblood.org.
Pay it forward
“When you next go for a coffee or sandwich, pay for the person behind you in the queue,” suggests psychotherapist Ms Lucy Beresford. “Be alert for people who could do with your support. You don’t have to spend big with this, it’s more about brighten[ing] someone’s day.”
Put your phone aside
“When the phone is out – in your hand or on the table – it makes the people around us feel that they are less important,” explains Mr Simon Sinek, author of Start With Why. In meetings, at the dinner table, in the pub, give your attention to those in the room.
Volunteer your time
An hour or two per week devoted to a community project via such groups as Good Gym will benefit those around you and the place you live in. Research from Imperial College London shows that an environmental cause is the best place to meet other truly selfless people, too.
Set up a standing order to a charity via your banking app today, then sit back and know you’ve done a great deed from the comfort of your sofa. If you’re a UK taxpayer be sure to tick the Gift Aid box to add an extra 25p for every £1 you donate. Why not donate some money to International Health Partners as part of the Big Give Christmas Challenge. IHP helps people in vulnerable communities get access to medicines that they need.
Discover ways of stepping outside of your own thoughts, emotions and desires to think about what’s around you. In a study conducted by Psychological Science people who’d been taught to meditate spent nearly twice as much in donations in a game designed to test its impact on selflessness.
Prioritise your diary
Gifting yourself by just being more available to friends or family can provide all parties with the lift they need. “Share your time with people who make you feel positive for a win-win,” suggests Dr Zac Seidler, psychologist and advisor to the Movember campaign. “It’s also important for your mental health to catch up regularly and reestablish relationships.”
Help the elderly
Studies have shown that as many as one in three elderly people feel lonely and isolated, especially in the restrictive winter months. Taking time out to chat to elderly neighbours can have a positive impact for them and may be a moment of enlightenment or learning for you.
Stretch your skills
“A candle loses nothing by lighting another candle,” Catholic priest Father James Keller once said. What skills can you pass on to others? Investigate mentoring a junior colleague, or else offering your know-how as a web designer, marketer or accountant to those groups with the least amount of money to afford such skills.
Use altruism as a mood boost
OK, the idea is to be selfless, but you can still get a boost to your wellbeing by giving more time, focus and help to others. Research published in the Journal Of Individual Differences supports that performing random acts of kindness equate with greater feelings of happiness reported by those doing the good deed.
Receive what you give
Selfless people have more sex, according to academics from the University of Guelph in Canada. The research into how altruism predicts mating success in humans reveals that a byproduct to being more generous is that others will want to give you more in return.
Get a medal in 2022
Completing a charity run, cycle ride or moustache-growing contest is a great social event that can make you feel great while helping a cause close to your heart. It also gives you an excuse to tuck into some goodies as a reward.
Connect with others
Making the effort to really know those closest to you is a selfless act that strengthens relationships, studies have shown. What makes your partner happy? How do they act when happy? What makes your partner angry? What do they like most about you? What do you think you could say or do to enhance your partner’s life? If you can’t answer any of the above then it’s time to start listening more.
Crack more jokes
Making people laugh induces a release of feel-good chemicals, which helps fortify their immune system, (according to a study published in the Journal Of The National Cancer Institute) reduces stress and even makes them more creative.
Hit back with empathy
Take a moment to wonder what the person who just slighted, upset or offended you is going through. It’s easy to judge, but a moment in their shoes – even if it’s just imagined – is the first step to cultivating empathy. Broadening your perspective is a great gift to yourself and others.
Do a good deed
“Simply try to help one random person each day,” suggests Beresford. “It could mean helping someone lift a pushchair up a flight of stairs on your commute, or buying a homeless person a hot drink.”
Improve yourself for others
“To become more selfless, you need to focus on yourself,” says life coach Mr Mitch Peterson. Personal development, hitting the gym and learning more is far from selfish. “By spending a little bit of time each day focusing on me, I am shaping my life in such a way that I can better serve others.”
“Enter every room with a smile,” says Beresford. No matter what mood you are in, your expression has the capacity to set the tone for others. If you go into settings with a positive mindset, your gift to others is this same quality, as they will be inspired to copy what they see emanating from you.
Lead by example
“We cannot insist that other people meditate, but if we meditate, we can become less judgmental, more accepting and compassionate,” says Mr Gelong Thubten, author of the best-selling A Monk’s Guide To Happiness. “Wherever we go, our character affects our environment. Just as when you drop a stone into a pond and the ripples spread, one thing causes the next.”
“Practising compassion involves thinking of others and doing what we can to alleviate their suffering. Our focus changes and our problems are put into perspective,” Thubten adds. “The microscope is taken off our ego, and we become less wrapped up in ourselves. Our own suffering can feel smaller, less heavy, giving us the space to help others.”
“We often use ‘How are you?’ as a casual greeting, and don’t expect or really hear the answer,” says therapist and yoga teacher Mr James Chapman. “But giving someone our full attention and really listening to what they are saying with interest, without interrupting and without judgement, shows that we care and has huge benefits for their mental health and overall wellbeing. We don’t have to solve their problems, just listen mindfully.”
Give yourself a break
“One of the most under-appreciated obstacles to selflessness is self-criticism,” explains clinical psychologist Dr Nick Wignall. “When you’re constantly beating yourself up in your own mind, it’s that much harder to get into a generous mindset. When you’re in the habit of being compassionate with yourself, it’s much easier to extend that mindset to the people around us. It’s easier to avoid the self-centeredness of constant self-criticism, and instead, open yourself up to be of service to those around you.”
Leave five stars
Buck the trend and actually spread a bit of kindness via the internet. If you had a great night out, were really impressed with the service at a venue or just happy with your eBay purchase, give a bit of praise. A positive review can be a real lift to the receiver – with the odd chance of a freebie next time you use the service.
Be more like Mr Ed Sheeran
“The singer spoke recently of how he bakes lasagna for his friends when they have had a baby,” says Beresford. “OK, he’s not the first person to ever do this, but you can channel the vibe by whipping up your favourite recipes either for couples who are nesting or for someone you know who is unwell or struggling in some way.”
Be the better man
Machismo can be a major obstacle to a more selfless you. One hotbed of selfishness, aggression and red-mist descending one-upmanship is the traffic queue. “If you’re waiting in traffic, let someone in,” Chapman says. “If you’re in the gym and someone has left weights lying around, put them away. Do all of these things without expecting anything in return.”
Charities that work with the homeless often need extra hands at Christmas. “Meals are great ways to connect with people,” says Beresford. “And you will find you have a deep level of connection with not just fellow volunteers but also the people you are serving.”
Corner the congrats market
“It’s easy to fall into the trap of being envious of the success of others,” says Beresford. “Instead, be the first out of the blocks to be happy for others, and send your congratulations. Whether you hear about an engagement or a work triumph, celebrate their joy. This positivity will also keep your mind upbeat so that your own dreams can be manifested more quickly.”
Write a letter
A personal, hand-written thank you shows thought, effort, time-taken consideration and a little more care than two smiley emojis and a “thumbs up” can never communicate. Take a moment to share your news by post to someone you’ve not seen in ages.
Leave your comfort zone
Offer to babysit, dog-walk, house-sit for friends or family if you’ve never done this before. “What can often be a real chore for the parent/dog-owner/holiday-maker is eased by having someone they trust step up to the plate,” adds Beresford. You’ll possibly discover a talent for baby whispering, the enjoyment of time with a pet or a new pub in the process.
“Yoga is all about connection – with your body through conscious movement, with your breath through pranayama, connection with your mind through meditation,” suggests Chapman. “When you practise regularly, you’ll notice that you feel different each time, some days are more difficult, you struggle with a posture that was easy the day before, but you’re still the same person. You learn to appreciate that we are all different and all changing and have different struggles at different times, but ultimately we all deserve the same care and respect.”
Start a group
Taking over the weekly five-a-side, organising the quiz team or forming a cycle ride out can be time-consuming to arrange – but the benefits are huge. “If you advertise it widely, your own personal circle of contacts will expand as you offer an opportunity for people to meet like-minded souls,” suggests Beresford. “By showing up and holding the space for such people, you shine your inner light.”
Give and receive
“When you’re more altruistic you are getting a lot of positive feedback from your environment,” Thubten says. “Everybody wants to help you, because they know that you would help them. You are in a harmonious situation within yourself and also around yourself. So, the compassionate person feels loved, protected and safe. Totally the opposite of the selfish person.”