The Joy of Social Change: It’s Not What You Get


In life, when you focus on what you get, you’re going to lose eventually.

It’s an easy game to get sucked into because there is a belief we carry around to control what happens.  We act a certain way and get a certain result, and over time we develop an expectation that if we act that way, the result will always come.  And we get easily frustrated or disappointed when it does not.

When something happens that you like, you’re happy. When something happens that you don’t like, you’re miserable. But even when it’s going well, we struggle with all our best efforts to control the outcome.

News flash: you can’t. Everything – everything! – in our current experience is impermanent.  Einstein is credited with the quote, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results” – but funnily enough, in my experience, if you keep doing the same thing over and over, and, eventually you do get a different result.

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results.”

— Albert Einstein (maybe)

There is a lot more going on than just our actions.  From the all-encompassing cosmos down to the microscopic level of sub-atomic particles, everything is moving. There are other people, also acting, and an entire planet of life swirling and constantly moving and changing, all largely outside of your mental awareness. Whatever is the case at this moment differs from every previous moment, however similar.  Some of the results you experience are just up to chance.  That’s the way the universe works. So when you pin your happiness on uncertain future outcomes, you’re eventually going to be let down. And if you’re not let down, you live in fear that the next time, you might be.

Dr. Srikumar Rao of the Rao Institute describes this as living in a me-centered universe. When you’re focused on how things are happening to yourself and trying to control it, you’re living in a me-centered universe. And living in a me-centered universe leads to suffering because it isn’t much you can do. Consistent action will not produce the same result every time.

In a world driven by product consumption, we’re fed media advertising designed to promote our consumption, which creates these models in our head of how to get more stuff.  This type of thinking focused on getting, spills over into our activities, where we think of winning and losing, my team, their team, my political party vs their political party.  It’s an antagonistic system, rooted in the urge to get.

And usually, it’s focused on the short term.  You go out, you get something, then you’re on to the next thing… what can you get next?  And so, you keep going, chasing, chasing, chasing, striving to get.  And at some point, you die, and all that you’ve got is lost.  It serves nothing.  It doesn’t bring any satisfaction or lasting peace.

When you live in a world of winning, you’re trapped by the antagonism and uncertainty of it – What you win, you can lose; what you get, you can un-get; where you succeed you can fail. In such a world, even when you’re on an upward trajectory, life can quickly change and take you down… it requires constant attention and is affected by so much which is outside of your control.

So, how do you break out of this cycle?  You stop focusing on what you get!  You only ever really have that what you give.  Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander have a wonderful concept of “being a contribution”, in their book, The Art of Possibility.  Instead of working to get something, change your mentality to think about how you can contribute.  When you’re making a contribution, you can’t lose.

Sure, you can make a bigger contribution or a smaller contribution.  But you might decide that the best contribution you can make is for someone else to take over.  You might start realizing that you make a better contribution when you’re enjoying yourself, and shift so that you can do that.  Then you start having fun while you make your contribution.  Remuneration might come, but it’s not about that.

You’ll naturally find that focusing on being a contribution brings much more personal satisfaction.  When you’re not doing something for something in return, – when you really let go of that mentality – that’s when you’ve stopped focusing on what you’ll get.  And when you’re not thinking about some end reward, you start enjoying the journey.  The whole process becomes much more engaging, because you’re there, more likely to see what’s happening, changing and adapting your contribution as the need arises.  You’re dancing with the flow of life, not against it.

When acting from a space of contribution, the satisfaction that arises is much longer-lasting than the momentary blush that comes when getting something.

Also, when coming from this space, your productivity increases, because you’re taking the emotional me-centered component out of the equation. When you’re focusing on what’s best for others, on the whole, you can work from a space of compassion and understanding. People recognize this. They do. And they value your contribution. There are more trust and greater collective output. Your example becomes a beacon that lifts others up as well.

Finding Joy in Social Change

Social change takes many forms across the world.  There are many different ways to make an impact.  Grassroots initiatives, non-profits, NGO’s, volunteering, social entrepreneurship, politics, religion, and pure and simple kindness.  So many mediums and methods… and while not all the above are always driven by altruistic intentions, the right intention can be there in anything that you do.

At the core, a lot of social change starts with a desire to make something better in the world.  And not just for yourself.  There is something so gratifying when you lift up others in your realm of influence — a level of satisfaction from giving that is unmatched.  I believe that sort of giving is the true essence of love.  That space in which you say, “I want your dreams to come true, and will give my time, effort and attention to help you achieve that, not for any material gain, but purely for the joy of being part of it.”

I find it helps to understand that your act of giving is giving you something in return — that sense of satisfaction and joy.  Some “generous” people can impose on their benefactors a sense of guilt and indebtedness.  They resent giving what they’re giving.  Personally, I don’t think that accomplishes anything.  That resentful energy affects the whole character of the act.  If you are giving your attention and efforts to a social cause, make sure that it is satisfying to you personally.  That’s not to say it has to be easy, or pleasant all of the time, but if your actions aren’t filling you up, then please stop and re-evaluate.

I’m going to keep going on about this sense of joy — because it really needs to be a cornerstone of any social change.  You can be angry about the way things are, and approach social change from a fighting standpoint, and that sort of vigor and energy can bring about change.  But be very careful that it doesn’t form the bedrock of the change because then your result will exhibit the very traits that you want to get rid of.

Also, I’m certain from my own experiences that what you focus on persists.  When you fight something, it has to exist.  And the more abstract the thing that you fight against, the more real it becomes.  It’s as if you are only really attacked when you are defending yourself.  If you can take a break from fighting, you may find that your enemy doesn’t exist anymore.

What I’m saying is that when you want to change the world, how you are perceiving the world on the inside will at least partly determine what occurs on the outside.  It’s as important to work to change yourself, as it is to change the world.  Make peace in yourself and dream a solution that fills you with joy.  If it doesn’t fill you with joy, then you’re not done.  Keep dreaming.  And then once you find that vision, hold on to it and reinforce it, knowing that the path to joy must also be filled with joy.

When you follow your joy, you’ll find things unfold much more naturally and impact more fully than otherwise.

Whenever you can, do something kind for Future You

I love this  saying – “Whenever you can, do something kind for Future You.”

I spend hours tricking myself into believing that reading articles on twitter or wherever will inspire me and make me better, but Future Me usually feels grumpy that I wasted time. But I’m glad when I read one that I suspect future me will think, hey, that was worth it.

It’s a brilliant concept, especially when I’m so wound up trying to get stuff done that I end up doing exactly what will leave Future Me exhausted and wondering what I’m doing with my life. If instead, I’m conscious of living now in a way that will leave me feeling refreshed and inspired down the road, it makes my current choices much clearer.

In a world where you can’t control the outcome, and where suffering regularly follows from stuff we expect to happen that doesn’t… if we give a little extra consideration into how our being right now will affect the future, we’re already on a much more aligned path.

Follow People Helping People on

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.