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What Really Makes a Difference?

Saving Ourselves by Saving Others

How does helping others define your life?

What would you do if you encountered an adorable little girl who was about to be sold into sex slavery because her family couldn't afford to keep her in school? This was the situation I faced while doing research in a remote village in Nepal. I had discovered that many girls from the lower caste were disappearing because they were too poor to pay school fees and provide support.

"How much would it cost to keep a girl in school?" I asked the principal.

"Oh, far too much! She would need supplies, books, uniforms, fees, and food."

It turned out that all of this would cost $50 for a year's support. $50! I reached into my pocket and pulled out some bills and shoved them in the principal's hand, telling him I'd return next year to check on her.

A noble gesture, I admit, but also an impulsive one. It took me four days' traveling just to get to this village and now I was committed to returning. And what about the other 12,000 Nepali girls each year who end up in sex slavery?

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So began a journey for me that, initially, was not so much intended to save the world as save myself. Perhaps like you I spend an extraordinary amount of time immersed in a world of consumerism, superficial encounters, and work that feels worthwhile yet I know I could easily be replaced by someone else who could do the same thing. This single incident seemed to redefine my whole life and send me in a whole new direction. Ten years and 126 girls later, saving at-risk children has now become my priority. It has also become my life's greatest joy.

A volunteer teaching yoga to lower caste children in Nepal

In the September issue of Psychology Today I was interviewed for an article about what most often leads to peak experiences. There are all kinds of things usually mentioned including personal accomplishments, feeling productive at work, physical challenges, and accumulating rewards. The idea I introduced, one often ignored when talking about happiness, is devoting time and energy to helping others. It is through service and altruism, especially with those most neglected, that we can find greater meaning and joy in our lives. According to a number of studies, there is a kind of "helper's high" associated with such efforts, a boost in your feelings of well-being that gives great satisfaction and meaning to life.

So often psychology is focused on self-development. We hear so much about self-esteem and self-satisfaction. Yet it is often by getting outside of ourselves that we attain some of our most enduring peak experiences. This is true whether you are working and traveling abroad or volunteering in your own community, whether you offer someone reassuring words or intervene on behalf of someone who is in great need. It is through such experiences of service to others that our own lives are redeemed. If you keep your eyes, ears, and heart open, you will find opportunities almost every day to make a positive difference in someone's life.

A volunteer teaching Nepali children to read in a library she helped build

And that first girl I met who was in such jeopardy? Ten years later she is now attending an elite university, the first lower caste girl in her village to ever attend higher education. She is now one of 126 girls in remote regions of Nepal who is receiving a scholarship from the generosity of those who have reached far beyond their own personal challenges.

For more information:  www.EmpowerNepaliGirls.org

Jeffrey A. Kottler, Ph.D., is a professor of Counseling at California State University, Fullerton, author of 80 books, and President of the grassroots organization Empower Nepali Girls.

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