Sharing the great secret: Doing good makes us happy

By Effie Caldarola | OSV News

Today I found myself in the multipurpose room of an old Methodist Church, waiting my turn to donate blood.

It was a sticky-hot summer afternoon. Since it was a workday, and because older folks are great at volunteering, most of those sprawled out on nearby tables with tubes sticking out of their arms were senior citizens.

Effie Caldarola is a wife, mom and grandmother who received her master’s in pastoral ministry from Seattle University.

After our blood was drawn, we drank juice, ate an unappetizing packaged cookie and were required to wait a few minutes to make sure we weren’t going to keel over, which I imagine must be a rare but exciting event for those running the program. As we sat, we chatted, learning a bit about each other and our various faith communities.

And we each left with the same positive feeling: “I did something good today.”

And that feeling is supposed to make us feel happier within our lives. At least that’s the modern consensus. If you Google “Does doing good make me happy?” you’ll find a host of articles explaining how doing good does good for us. And there are scientific studies to back this up.

Apparently, engaging in altruistic or charitable behavior releases endorphins in the brain, which help us to feel happy. Volunteering can even help lift our depression.

As I write this, I imagine Jesus standing over my shoulder saying, “Oh, really?”

Jesus probably isn’t sarcastic, but I do think he would like to remind me that his whole call to mission was to love our neighbor — that he told us 2,000 years ago that following him was the way to find that elusive peace which the world doesn’t give.

That’s happiness. It’s not a new idea, even though Jesus never mentioned endorphins.

Being good to your neighbor as a way of living a peaceful and fulfilling life is a notion even older than Jesus: major religions throughout the ages believed charity toward others was something foundational.

50 years ago, Jesuit Father Pedro Arrupe delivered an address which influenced the future of his order and articulated this concept eloquently. Arrupe spoke of educating Catholics to be “men for others.” This phrase, today expressed as men and women for others, envisioned a person who would “give himself to others in love — love, which is his definitive and all-embracing dimension, that which gives meaning to all his other dimensions.”

Nurse Cathy Matarazzo takes a break from her duties in the radiology department at Mercy Medical Center in Rockville Centre, N.Y., to donate blood during the hospital’s blood drive in this 2005 file photo. (OSV News photo/Gregory A. Shemitz, CNS)

The modern “do good to be happy” folks are right, of course, but here’s what they’re leaving out: Living for others is not just another self-help scheme, “one and done” for the day. It is an all-day, every day attitude. It is a mindset and desire grounded in God, who is defined as Love. Living out this love gives meaning to our lives. The love we show for others is our “definitive and all-embracing dimension.” It’s who we are as Christians, and it is defined as our way of life.

Doing good for others means giving when it’s sacrificial. It means forgiving when it’s difficult. It means living with a focus on the “other,” rather than how everything will work best for me.

Being a person for others enabled Franciscan Father Maximillian Kolbe to offer his life at Auschwitz in place of a husband and father who was targeted for death. We see Nicaraguan Bishop Rolando Álvarez, who refused a chance to flee persecution, remain incarcerated unjustly even today.

This love was embodied on the cross, by Jesus Christ.

Being a person for others may not call us to that kind of extreme sacrifice, but day by day, we can look for ways to be a person for others as a way of life, in our family, our neighborhood, our world.

And if one side effect of that effort is our own increased happiness, all the better!

Author: OSV News

OSV News is a national and international wire service reporting on Catholic issues and issues that affect Catholics.

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