By Courtney Schien
One of my friends once told me, “Your life is not just about you,” and that message really stuck with me. I’m sad to say that it hadn’t occurred to me at that point in time that my life is just as much about the people around me as it is about me. That by knowing me, their lives are different, and that by knowing them, my life is changed. We create ripples with every decision we make; the people around us are impacted and influenced by our energy and action. The reverse is also true; the people around us impact and influence our energy and action as well. Thus our destinies are intertwined as human beings, and a break in one area of our lives ultimately impacts our communities as a whole.
A simple metaphor of this fact is rush hour traffic. Imagine you’re making your way into work and you get in a minor car accident. Is it just you and the other driver who are impacted? Usually, no. Traffic piles up behind you as lanes are blocked and the folks around you slow to take a look. Hundreds of people are likely late to work as a result of your two-person fender bender.
This interconnectedness carries into a variety of aspects of our lives. From our morning commutes to our overall moods, the ripple effects can be broad and are largely dependent on and influenced by the people around us. Shawn Achor shares in his book, The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work (and I would argue all places in between):
“…our emotions, too, are enormously contagious… In fact, studies have shown that when three strangers meet in a room, the most emotionally expressive person transmits his or her mood to the others within just two minutes… Amazing as it might sound, once people mimic the physical behaviors tied to these emotions, it causes them to feel the emotion themselves. Smiling, for instance, tricks your brain into thinking you’re happy, so it starts producing neurochemicals that actually do make you happy… So the happier everyone is around you, the happier you will become.” – pp. 204-206
This speaks directly to how critical the well-being of those around us really is. If your child is in school with children who do not have access to regular meals, that will have a direct impact on your family as your kids experience disruptions in class from their friends who may be going hungry and are distracted as a result. Or maybe your child is in school with children who do not have access to healthcare, and so those kids are coming to school sick because they can’t afford medicine and so they pass on their colds to your child and your whole family gets sick as a result. These simple examples demonstrate – the better care we are all able to provide to one another and make available in our communities, the better our collective well-being is.
Tom Rath and Jim Harter describe Community Wellbeing in their book, Well Being: The Five Essential Elements, as what we do to give back to our community, and they emphasize that Community Wellbeing can actually be “the differentiator between a good life and a great one.” They outline ‘ideal communities’ as distinguished by:
1. Aesthetics, which includes naturally beautiful places and the availability of parks, trails, and playgrounds
2. Social offerings, or places where people can meet, spend time with friends, and enjoy the nightlife
3. A general openness to all types of people, regardless of race, heritage, age, or sexual orientation
So if we have to think together and work together and care together to build the best communities possible, where do we start? Rath and Harter suggest “Three Recommendations for Boosting Community Wellbeing”:
1. Identify how you can contribute to your community based on your personal mission.
2. Tell people about your passions and interests so they can connect you with relevant groups and causes.
3. Opt into a community group or event. Even if you start small, start now.
If you’re still trying to think through where to focus your attention, consider if one of the elements of the ‘ideal communities’ Rath and Harter outline matters more to you than the others and invest your energy there (improving aesthetics, increasing local social offerings, or supporting a general openness to all types of people). Or maybe consider if you have a skill set like web design or accounting that community organizations could leverage to increase their effectiveness.
At some point last year, Oprah partnered with Starbucks and they began running coffee cup sleeves with quotes from her. My favorites were: “Know what sparks the light in you. Then use that light to illuminate the world,” and “Follow your passion. It will lead you to your purpose.” When I first read those quotes, I could also hear my friend’s voice in my head saying, “your life is not just about you” and it made me wonder how my passion and purpose might be used to illuminate the world. We all have something different we can offer our community, and when we work together to add value to common causes we are passionate about, then we all benefit.
So know what sparks the light in you. And follow your passion. Because your life is not just about you. And the people in your community can and will benefit from the passion you share with them. Together, you can illuminate the world.
Courtney Schien is an Implementation Consultant at Wells Fargo Advisors in downtown St. Louis. After completing grad school in 2009, Courtney began looking for ways to give back to the St. Louis community and to meet other young professionals. She came across GenNext on the United Way’s volunteer site in early 2011, attended her first service project, and has been an active participant ever since.