I woke up at 4 a.m., and all I could think was "What am I doing with my life?" I was in my early 30s and living in the corporate world, working long hours with high levels of stress. I felt burned out and depleted. What happened? Growing up, I always dreamed I would change the world and make it a better place.
At that moment, I definitely didn't feel like I was changing anything. I was just earning a paycheck. Just surviving. I didn't have time to think about changing the world. I had deadlines to meet and never enough time for anything extra.
Does that sound familiar? Many people I know are in the same situation. How can you take on the problems of the world when there's so much to do already? It can be overwhelming, no matter how good your intentions might be.
But it doesn't have to be that way. You can change the world, just like you always thought you would. You can make a positive change. You can do meaningful deeds and make a positive impact on other people.
What's more, when you do something meaningful, you do more than just change the world. You increase your own happiness. In 2009, psychology researcher Michael Steger found that meaningful work makes people happier and more effective in their daily lives. It turns out, people who work to change the world, also receive a great benefit from their efforts. So what can you do?
Here Are 7 Ways You Can Help Change the World
1. Start Small: You don't have to take on everything at once, in fact, it's better if you don't. Start small and just take the first step. This was the secret of Nobel Prize winner Muhammad Yunus, the founder of micro finance and micro lending. Before he retired, Yunus helped thousands of people in poverty obtain business loans without collateral. He started with just $27.
Yunus surveyed people in his community about their needs and was shocked to learn that he could assist 42 people by lending just $27 of his own money. His first project was a success and he continued to build on it, finally creating Grameen Bank. By 1997, Grameen Bank had issued US$6.38 billion to 7.4 million borrowers, empowering others to build businesses and improve their own situations. Yunus went on to successfully lead several other initiatives to help the poor, starting small each time.
What small action can you take today? Take it. Small actions can build on each other but you need to take that first step.
2. Be a Good Neighbor: You don't have to travel the world or live in Washington, DC to make an impact. You actually have the greatest knowledge and influence in your own backyard. This was the lesson learned by John Paul Flintoff, and he discussed it in his 2012 Ted Talk entitled "How to Change the World."
Flintoff works to help protect the environment and prevent global warming. He realized he could make an immediate difference by reaching out to his neighbors. However, he did it not by overloading them with facts and research, but by giving them tomato plants. Every year, he offers his extra tomato seedlings to his neighbors. This simple and kind act started his neighbors growing some of their own food, thereby slightly reducing their environmental impact.
What's something you can do in your own backyard?
"Choose your corner, pick away at it carefully, intensely and to the best of your ability and that way you might change the world." -Charles Eames
3. Highlight an Issue: Do you feel strongly about an issue that doesn't get enough attention, or where change is slow? Become educated on the issue and what's being done to address it. Then you can highlight the issue, advocate for change, share information with your friends and family. You can do it through modern social media, and even by writing good old-fashioned letters to your government representatives. Working on an issue like this, you can create a huge impact. Especially now with social media, your message can go viral on the internet, spreading the word even faster.
What issues are important to you? How can you help bring attention to those issues?
4. Pay it Forward and Practice Random Acts of Kindness: A small act of kindness creates a ripple effect that can carry from person to person, brightening many lives. From giving someone a smile to holding a door open for someone, doing chores for other people, donating to charity, or buying lunch for a friend, it doesn't take a lot to make someone's day a little bit better.
Research has also found that performing these simple acts of kindness increases feelings of happiness and positivity. One study even found that "acts of kindness create an emotional warmth, which releases a hormone known as oxytocin. Oxytocin causes the release of a chemical called nitric oxide, which dilates the blood vessels. This reduces blood pressure and, therefore, oxytocin is known as a 'cardioprotective' hormone. It protects the heart by lowering blood pressure."
I had a friend who passed away a few years ago who used to buy coffee for the people in the car behind him at the drive-through. He received immense joy from knowing he just gave someone a nice surprise and had no expectation of anything in return.
"I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples." -Mother Teresa
5. Let Your Values Guide Your Spending and Know Who You're Doing Business With: Support companies that have fair trade practices and that have a triple bottom line -- people, planet, and profit (not just profit). Take the time to learn about the companies where you do business. Does your bank use ethical business practices? What types of projects do they fund? What goes into making your favorite products?
Let your money make a statement. While it may not seem like a lot, if enough people redirect their spending based on unethical or unsustainable practices, businesses will change and evolve to meet the demand. If you spend according to your own personal values, you'll make a statement and also find more harmony with your money.
Make a list of the products and services you buy most? Do their business practices align with your values? Are there other options?
"You must be the change you want to see in the world." -Gandhi
6. Pray or Meditate: While this seems like an internal change, prayer and meditation have also been shown to have a positive effect on your surrounding area. The Maharishi Effect indicates that there is a correlation between meditation and societal harmony. For example, several studies have documented a reduction in crime rates in communities where at least one percent of the population practices transcendental meditation. Meditation is a powerful tool to bring internal peace us as individuals, but it may also benefit those around us.
Do you have a daily prayer or meditation practice? If not, try it for 10 days and feel the difference in makes in your own life, and possibly in the lives of others.
7. Be Authentic in Everything You Do: You have a unique value and perspective on life and that makes you inherently beautiful and amazing. No one else in the universe is like you. You are one of a kind. Bring your true, authentic self to every situation, and you may find it's just what was needed. Authenticity creates higher levels of empowerment, creativity, and overall well-being -- a great place to be when helping others.
"Don't ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive." -Howard Thurman
Identify ways you can begin to align your thoughts with your actions, increasing your authenticity. Make a list and work to create greater harmony between the two.
Where Do You Start? Two Questions to Ask Yourself Now
So how do you know where to start? John Paul Flintoff posed two questions to the audience in his 2012 Ted Talk about where to begin:
1. What would you do if you knew you could do anything and wouldn't fail? This question helps you think big without the negative doubts or self talk. I recently posed this question to my community and some of the answers I got back included curing AIDS, eradicating malaria, working with DNA to prevent illness, and writing a best-selling novel. What beautiful goals. Dream big -- what would you do?
2. What is one thing you can start doing toward that goal within the next 24 hours? Big goals can be daunting, but focusing only the next action allows you to make progress without feeling overwhelmed. Don't wait - begin with just one small step and keep it up. Before you know it, you'll have moved mountains.
"How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world." -Anne Frank
Now it's your turn. What things are you doing to make the world a better place. Share your thoughts below.