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Dust, Drudgery And Bliss: Happiness And Volunteering

After so many years concentrating on what makes depressed people depressed, scientists are now beginning to study what makes happy people happy.
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Following Hurricane Katrina's rampage through the deep South in 2005, I learned that a group of volunteers was planning to do a "post-hurricane" cleanup in Louisiana and Mississippi. I called my two children, who at that moment in their lives seemed to live on the Internet. To my surprise, they ditched their laptops and joined me on the plane to Atlanta.

From the airport we drove straight to the little harbor of Bayou La Batre on the Louisiana coast. The place looked strangely familiar, and plain strange to boot. Two shrimping boats were perched halfway up the hill on the far side of the harbor, driven up by water and wind. After leaving the marina, I understood why the place felt so familiar. On that same spot, Forrest Gump had joined his old war buddy Lieutenant Dan on a wild shrimping venture.

Not far away, our volunteering jobs awaited. In Bayou, we had to clean out what was left of a mud-splattered ranch owned by a family of Vietnamese immigrants who lived nearby in a trailer. Next we traveled to a village in the Mississippi heartland. The memory of that place is firmly lodged in my mind. We concentrated our efforts on a small house hidden in the backwoods. The front yard was littered with abandoned cars. Gertrude, a stout woman with a weather-beaten face, peered through a crack in the door, scowling. "What are you uppity white folk doing down here?" she seemed to be thinking.

But she waved us in. We found out that Gertrude lived alone, abandoned like the parade of old cars in front. She wanted us to repair the master bedroom. The storm had blown off part of the roof, leaving the room exposed to the elements. The carpet had to be ripped out, and the whole ceiling had to replaced. We had no idea how to do it, which Gertrude found quite amusing. She seemed to enjoy reminding us what a bunch of incompetent amateurs we were.

I recall perching on ladders for hours on end as we peeled away the rotting ceiling and put up new plywood. Above us, clouds of debris rained down, seeping under our goggles and masks. Below us, Gertrude stalked around, clucking and fidgeting. The disdain now seemed to be mixed with pity.

"What on earth are you doing with that plywood? I'll show you how it's done. And you don't have the right tools. I'd better go get some."

Over the next three days, we renovated the room. I'm not sure how we did it. Gertrude hobbled to and fro with tools and edibles. We brainstormed about the most difficult parts of the project. The ceiling took shape. I'm pretty sure it was a unique design. The room began to look respectable, and in the process we regained some of our battered self-respect.

Soon enough, it was time to go. As we drove away, through the rear window of the van, beyond the line of car wrecks, I saw grumpy Gertrude waving on the doorstep. She was wiping away tears.

As I watched the stout figure of Gertrude shrink in the distance, something strange happened to me. The days of dust and misery seemed to melt away. On second thought, maybe they didn't really melt away. They were transformed into something else, a string of memories that still fills me with a strange kind of longing. I want to relive those days of dust and drudgery, which brought me closer to my kids and to a stranger in Mississippi. The math doesn't seem quite right. How could that three-second glimpse of Gertrude through the car window transform three days of forgettable experiences into unforgettably nostalgic memories?

Following our visit to Mississippi, I began to read up on "positive psychology." After so many years concentrating on what makes depressed people depressed, scientists are now beginning to study what makes happy people happy. One question fascinates me: What if the scientific method, that great discovery behind the discoveries that took us to the moon, that harnessed the power of those quirky particles inside your computer, could show us how we could become happier?

What this new field is beginning to show is that our choices and actions can affect our mood as much as, or more than, psychopharmaceuticals. I am not saying that the new science will make medication obsolete. This is because of one sad reality.

Depression paralyzes. Try telling someone with major depression to go volunteering. It might work...but too often, it's too late. The results are still coming in, but what the science of happiness seems to be telling us is that we can ward off depression, or blunt it, before it happens. Perhaps we can feed our psychological resilience, in the same way that we build up physical resilience to high blood pressure and heart attacks by eating the right foods.

Some of the most unambiguous results from the new science are showing that volunteering, or simply caring for those around us, especially if it is intrinsically motivated, enhances our sense of well-being.

This begs the question, is it ethically respectable to go volunteering because it makes us happier? Kant, who had a lot to say about the goodness of doing good for its own sake, would have replied with an emphatic "no." Conversely, Confucius and Mencius felt that if we didn't rejoice in caring for our fellow humans, our psychological growth would become stunted. They emphasized that an intimate link exists between the happiness we inspire and the happiness we experience.

When I reflect on that mysterious moment in Mississippi, as I looked through the rear window of our car, the distinction between my happiness and Gertrude's happiness seems like a technicality. If I go back down to Mississippi, I'm going for both of us.

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