Is Serving Others the Key to Meaning and Purpose?
Recent findings show the role of serving others in finding meaning and purpose
Posted July 14, 2016
I remember how in November 2013 my wife (and fellow Intentional Insights co-founder) and I, together with a great bunch of people, organized a spaghetti dinner fundraiser at our Unitarian Universalist church in Columbus, OH. The event was a big success, with more than 120 attendees, a music program, a raffle and silent auction. We raised over $2000 for the Mid-Ohio Food Bank. It might surprise you that the dinner organizers and volunteers came from Columbus secular humanist, atheist, and skeptic groups, including the UU secular group, as this religious denomination embraces believers and non-believers alike. The dinner honored the Flying Spaghetti Monster, a light satire meant to promote reason-based scientific education in biology classes. No belief in a deity was required to participate in community-oriented civic engagement at this dinner – in fact, the event was explicitly oriented toward secular-minded folks.
Studies indicate that opportunities to serve others, whether in civic, private, or professional settings, as well as charitable giving, result in a stronger sense of purpose and meaning in life, leading to better mental and physical well-being. This does not mean that serving others is necessary for a strong sense of meaning and purpose, but such civic engagement generally helps contribute to gaining this sense. Volunteering together with others in your community enables the creation of strong social bonds, which adds further to a sense of meaningfulness. In the United States, religion offers the main venue for community belonging, and also for working with others to pursue civic engagement. Civic engagement ranges from donating one’s time to bring about a better world such as through the spaghetti dinner fundraiser described above, to pursuing social justice through advocacy and lobbying, as exemplified by BREAD, the main interfaith social justice organization in Central Ohio. No wonder that the majority of the research indicates that church-going believers in the US generally have a stronger sense of life meaning. However, as my research illustrates, other societies create many alternative venues besides religious ones that provided similar opportunities and the benefits that can result (check out this brief video based on my research to learn more).
So is there something similar happening in North America? Here’s the thing: there are more and more secular communities around, and they are actively participating in social justice activities. Just here in Columbus, besides the FSM dinner, the Humanist Community of Central Ohio does regular blood donations, which were featured in the main newspaper in Central Ohio, participates in LGBTQ activism, and promotes other forms of social and economic civic engagement. The local chapter of the United Coalition of Reason hosted a walk-a-thon to benefit the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, part of a broader national effort by the Foundation Beyond Belief. And COUNT, a Columbus secular group, is explicitly dedicated to volunteering. My wife and I have also led a year-long effort to get BREAD to open up its doors to secular folks, and then successfully mobilized a large contingent of non-believers to attend this event. National secular organizations, such as the Secular Student Alliance and the Secular Coalition for America, increasingly promote civic engagement. More and more opportunities are emerging for nonbelievers who want to volunteer together with others who share their value system, whether for more secular-themed causes such as Camp Quest, reason-based summer camps for children and youth, or social justice in general.
A particularly promising new trend in civic engagement is Effective Altruism. This movement is devoted to using well-reasoned, evidence-based approaches to find the most effective ways to improve the world, especially through charitable giving. Prominent secular notables are turning to Effective Altruism as the most reason-based, rational strategy of giving. Effective Altruism is endorsed by prominent secular philosophers such as Peter Singer. It includes organizations such as Giving What We Can, GiveWell, and 80,000 Hours. Your dollars will do the most good for the world through Effective Altruism!
What are the practical takeaways here? Whether you are a believer or secular, to gain a greater sense of purpose and meaning in life it helps to participate in civic engagement with others from your community. It might be more challenging if you are a non-believer, but there are plenty of local secular groups around the United States that offer opportunities to contribute to social justice on a local level. Take the initiative to push your local communities to do service for the social good. You will likely help yourself and others find a more powerful perception of life meaning, increase mental and physical well-being for yourself and others, and you can gain greater agency through achieving your personal and social goals. Here, altruism and self-orientation combine for the win!
P.S. For additional resources, check out this workbook with exercises on finding meaning and purpose using science-based strategies; this free science-based web app to evaluate your current sense of meaning and purpose; this free online class on finding meaning and purpose using science; and the wide variety of other resources on meaning and purpose available at Intentional Insights.
Bio: Dr. Gleb Tsipursky runs a nonprofit that helps you reach your goals using science to build an altruistic and flourishing world, Intentional Insights, authored Find Your Purpose Using Science among other books, and regular contributes to prominent venues; and is a tenure-track professor at Ohio State. Consider signing up to the Intentional Insights newsletter; volunteering; donating; buying merchandise. You can support him personally on Patreon. Get in touch with him at firstname.lastname@example.org.