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Happiness is helping others

October 12, 2011
by V. Tellis-Nayak, PhD
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April 17, 1945-American forces enter Hitler's concentration camps. Among the liberated prisoners was Viktor Frankl, the towering scholar, researcher and teacher who opened new doors in positive psychology. Modern-day stress, frustration and mental illness, he argued, are inevitable when one has no meaning and purpose in life, which he learned through his extensive work with women prone to suicide. That idea led to a momentous discovery when he was a victim of, and witness to, the incredible brutality in Hitler's camp. Frankl's scientific curiosity identified one remarkable human trait that could predict, with all facing the same dire circumstance, who among his fellow prisoners would succumb and who would triumph and survive. Careful observation and reasoning brought him to an inescapable conclusion: Even in the most absurd, painful and dehumanized situation, human life has meaning; you triumph over suffering when you find meaning in suffering. Search for the meaning of life, and happiness will follow when you have discovered it.

It is a sunny spring day 67 years later (the specific date is lost to history), on a different continent. At Mission View Health Center in San Luis Obispo, Calif., Matthew Lysobey, administrator, is listening intently to his staff as they ponder the question he has posed to them: “We give our residents very good care. We have compassionate, caring staff. Residents tell us they are truly satisfied. Why, then, do they not look happy?” He turns to JJ (a real-life certified nursing assistant [CNA], behind this fictitious name), who in simple words but with shrewd insight, precisely spells out the correct diagnosis. “Indeed, we love our residents and serve them with devotion,” says JJ. “That is where the problem may lie. My life would suck if all I had to look forward to every day was thanking everyone for helping me and no one needed me anymore.”

TAKE THE STING OUT OF SUFFERING

JJ's insight into the human heart echoed the conclusions Frankl articulated in his landmark book, Man's Search for Meaning. The suicidal cases he treated had convinced him that suicide is a failure to make sense of life. Ample evidence supports that view. Of the 35,000 suicides annually in the United States, significantly more occur on Mondays, while much fewer happen on holidays; the suicide rate spikes after age 65, but it drops among those who have friends; and it drops even more among those with many friends and close ties. These findings hint at the power of the spiritual element in human life, its potential to kill or to heal; it can lift us out of our self-absorption to help us transcend and to reach out and make a difference in other lives-a sure way to enrich our own life and add joy to it.

The wisdom in JJ's simple words was born of a CNA's everyday experiences. A CNA has a difficult mandate. The repetitive job routine, the negative public image of his or her workplace, the lowest status position he or she occupies in it and the meager wages earned all combine to make their mandate more burdensome. Nevertheless, CNAs are not an alienated lot.

On the contrary, My InnerView (MIV) 2010 surveys of more than 5,000 nursing homes show that much of the turnover in their ranks is just a recycling of the same group at the fringes of a solid, stable core. Nationwide, more than half of all CNAs have worked in the same nursing home for more than a year, and more than 25 percent have worked there for five years or more. MIV also discovered that CNAs' greatest satisfaction comes from making a difference in the lives of those they care for. Altruism, generosity and transcendence are alive and well among CNAs, although researchers seem blind to it.

ELDERS REACHING OUT

Lysobey took JJ's message to heart; he set the stage for the implementation of Helping Hands, a service program dedicated to feeding the homeless once a month. The buy-in was immediate and wide-ranging. Residents, their families and staff now had a shared mission. They rallied around it, bent their energies and marshaled every resource toward furthering the cause. They formed think tanks and worked in teams; they assessed needs, planned and organized. In the process, they unearthed a treasure trove of talent, skills and experience that lay unseen and unused among the 130 residents, who in their greener years were accomplished engineers, salesmen, teachers, lawyers and homemakers. That reservoir of expertise would be theirs to tap. In other words, Mission View became a different community, stirred by a lofty vision, abuzz with new energy, with everyone looking in the same direction and impatient to move forward.

Helping Hands' members decided to raise money by making scented homemade soaps to sell at the local farmers' market. The team reviewed the steps they needed to take to make this venture successful, and matched the tasks to each resident's expertise: bookkeeping, sales, marketing, publicity, packaging, transport, scheduling … even residents with dementia happily pasted labels on the product.

Over the past three years Helping Hands has matured into a well-oiled, resident-managed company that has never taken a loan, never failed to pay a bill, never slipped in its schedule and never turned away a hungry homeless person. The local town takes pride that wheelchairs cruise down its sidewalks. The farmers' market has a new magnate-wheelchair-bound residents offer free homemade cookies to attract customers, who also receive a salutary homily on attaining inner joy by feeding homeless children, which they can do indirectly by purchasing soaps. “The handicapped helping the homeless makes an inspiring sight,” says Dennis Conway, the wheelchair-confined VP of sales at Helping Hands.

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