The Road to Joy

Find your way with three important questions.

Posted Nov 18, 2019

'Zoe Weil'
Source: 'Zoe Weil'

When I was writing the book Most Good, Least Harm: A Simple Principle for a Better World and Meaningful Life, I identified eight keys to putting the "MOGO Principle" (doing the most good and least harm to oneself, other people, animals, and the environment) into practice. They were:

  1. Live your epitaph
  2. Pursue joy
  3. Be of service
  4. Make connections and self reflect
  5. Model your message and work for change
  6. Find and create community
  7. Take responsibility
  8. Strive for balance

Why was “Pursue Joy” so high on a list about making choices to do the most good and least harm? As a long-time activist working to stop cruelty toward and exploitation of people and animals and the destruction of the environment, I’d met my share of stereotypical “angry activists.”

In fact, I was one of them.

While I (mostly) expressed my anger only within the safety of my inner circle of fellow activists, I was aware that the pain, sorrow, and fury I felt would sometimes leak out. I began to notice that the more rage I experienced, the more I pushed people away. I realized that if we activists were embittered, our efforts to grow a positive movement for change would be largely unsuccessful. Only other angry, embittered people would want to join our club!

Plus, we were suffering. We needed joy in our lives so that we didn’t burn out.

Thus began my quest to discover what brings people joy.

I queried hundreds of people. Many responded by sharing what you’d expect — they found joy being with loved ones, in nature, in community, and with adored animals.

No one wrote that a new car, electronic device, dress, or perfect lawn brought joy.

Over and over, I also heard this: “Giving to others brings me joy.”

One person wrote: “One of the most joyous things I can experience is to see many people coming together for a common, good cause.”

Another said: “My joy stems from a constant realization that justice will prevail, and I’m taking part in bringing justice to the world a little bit more quickly.”

One expressed similar sentiments this way: “Service brings me joy. It has been the organizing principle of my adult life, informing my career decisions and my spiritual and political beliefs. On many days, it has been what gets me out of bed in the morning. It has brought extraordinary people into my life and has provided me with opportunities to see and do things I never could have imagined.”

When I received these emails, I realized that Key 2 and Key 3 were really one:

Pursue joy through service.

The belief that doing good brings happiness has ancient roots. Socrates, described in Plato’s Republic, said, “Only those who act rightly are truly happy.”

There are hundreds of studies that demonstrate the life-enhancing benefits of kindness. When we give of ourselves, especially if we start young, evidence indicates that we live longer, are less depressed, and are healthier and more self-realized. (See Stephen Post’s book Why Good Things Happen to Good People.)

It’s important to find the right ways to give, however, because not all service brings joy.

When my son was young, I would get calls to bake cookies for events at his school. (My husband never got these calls, but that’s a different blog post.) While I usually agreed to bake the cookies, my motivation stemmed from guilt. I took no particular joy in being manipulated into baking cookies.

But when I was asked to lead a week-long humane education course for his class — a task equivalent in time to baking at least one thousand cookies — I felt great joy in offering my skills and passions to those kids!

If the road to joy lies in service, and if it’s crucial to find the right ways to serve, how do you find your particular path?

Here are three questions to ask yourself:

1. What problems, concerns, or issues am I most passionate about addressing?

2. What am I good at?

3. What do I love to do?

If you are able to find the place where the answers to these three questions meet, you are on the road to joy through service.

Then, every time you see the fruits of your efforts, you will experience more joy. Every deep connection you make with someone who shares your passions and concerns will bring you more joy. And as your network grows and your work bears more and more fruit, there will be more and more joy.

That’s a big win for you. And when all of us do this, it’s also a big win for the world.