When I go for runs, I often create a macabre scenario in my head: An evil clan has kidnapped my children and threatens to kill them if I stop running. Absurdity aside, this masochistic fantasy gets me through my jogs more easily than when I think about, say, my cardiovascular health.
It turns out my self-motivation trick, sick and silly as it is, plays on a basic human truth: We perform better, and are happier, when we assign our actions with a purpose that is beyond ourselves. Take hospital custodians. They have a fairly thankless job, mopping up bodily fluids, disposing of sharp objects and getting out of the way of doctors and patients while still finishing their duties.
Most of them are understandably disdainful of their work. But some, according to research done by Amy Wrzesniewski and colleagues, found their jobs to be deeply satisfying. What was the difference?
The satisfied janitors imbued their daily tasks with a higher purpose. By keeping the hospital clean, they believed, they were preventing the spread of germs and creating a pleasant environment, thereby protecting the patients' physical and mental health.
They considered themselves a vital part of a greater whole. And that made them better at their jobs and happier with their lives. It's a simple lesson, but most of us fail to find a larger purpose in what we do on a daily basis. We become mired in what we consider the selfish preoccupations of our petty world. We long for more but have trouble finding a way to get there.
Reconsider your purpose: As the hospital custodians did, it's important to link your work or even your recreational activities to a higher purpose. Think about how your work impacts other people.
If you're a financial adviser, for example, you help people realize their dreams of starting a family or owning a home. If you're in human resources, you offer security and peace of mind to employees and their loved ones. Hair stylists, cab drivers, landscapers, chefs and servers bring joy, comfort and ease to the lives of many.
Appeal to people's innate desire to do the right thing: One study conducted by economic behaviorists Dan Ariely and James Heyman found people are less likely to help move a couch when they are offered money than if the favor is positioned as just that: a favor. Why? People want to feel that they do certain things because they are good people, not because they're being compensated to do so.
Help yourself first: The late psychologist Abraham Maslow amended his famous Hierarchy of Needs late in his life to add self-transcendence at the top, over the previous pinnacle of self-actualization, or achieving one's full potential. Just as self-actualization is dependent on the fulfillment of the base layers of the pyramid-needs like food and warmth, safety, and love and belonging-so does self-transcendence depend on self-actualization.
In other words, put on your own oxygen mask before helping others. Self-transcendence is not blind devotion to others; rather, it is built on a solid understanding of the self in all its strengths and weaknesses.
The writer is a freelance contributor at -------Patty Onderko
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