Many times, people complain that they no longer feel “useful.” Perhaps a father has injured himself on the job and can no longer work regularly. A mother who, because of illness, cannot attend to her children as she would like may feel guilty. Someone might express having no purpose simply because they have retired and no longer think of themselves as “productive.” All of these individuals believe that, if they do not see themselves performing a function, they also have no value or purpose. I thought it might be worthwhile to look at this belief more closely.
By way of examining the idea, I would like to share with you a little something about my cousin, Mike. He was born on Halloween night in 1961 with a diagnosis of Down Syndrome. The physicians at that time gave him a life expectation of about two years. When he died thirty-eight years later, he had never held a real job, though he had gone to a sheltered workshop. He had no special skills, though I still possess a hook rug that he made and gave to me. Yet, at his death no one – no one – that knew him did not treasure their relationship with Mike or value him in their life. His “usefulness,” if you could call it that, lay simply in his presence among us. Mike was Mike.
So, what about the rest of us? How could we measure our own utility? Recall the movie in which the character, George Bailey, discovered the condition of the world if had he not been born into it. He found his town a far darker place than he could have imagined. George learned that the sparkle of his laughter, the warmth of his greeting, a supporting gesture, or the joy of a compliment to someone else were among the many characteristics that made him irreplaceable to others.
The idea that we must have productivity or usefulness can be traced to an old myth reaching back into our childhood. This belief or “schema” develops innocently enough from parents, teachers, and others who encourage us to do our share of tasks in whatever group we find ourselves. The concept can increase to such a level of importance in our minds, however, that we come to think of it as a part of our being, as a part of our reality. You can challenge this old schema, though. Think of a dearly loved person and the treasure of their presence in your life. Do you give value to a function they provide, or do you simply love them? Ask yourself, then how you genuinely contribute to their well-being. To answer that question, I offer two sources of information as a start.
First, in his research into the factors of a happy marriage, John Gottman discovered powerful, affirming methods of relating to a spouse or partner. These include sharing admiration and respect for someone; approaching problem-solving in a positive way; encouraging others to talk about their hopes and dreams; trying to understand the other person’s point of view. These strategies, while very helpful in an intimate relationship, can affect anyone we know in a positive way. If these ideas look interesting, you can learn more about them on Dr. Gottman’s website:
You might also be interested in reading about research by Dr. Martin Seligman, a psychologist from the University of Pennsylvania, who has extensively studied the factors of authentic happiness. I have been especially impressed with his ideas about seeking a state of contentment. In the context of our discussion here, his work informs us about how to look and experience ourselves differently, seeking to become more aware of who we are rather than the occupation in which we find ourselves or the responsibilities we assume. For more information about Dr. Seligman’s research, go to:
I think often about comments a man of wisdom shared with me over many years. He remarked that the genuine characteristics of a happy, contented life are acceptance, generosity and gratitude. Notice that two of these traits reflect upon how we interact with people rather than the functions we perform. The third concept goes to accepting ourselves, rather than struggling with who we think we are supposed to be.
So, when we examine the idea of the importance in being useful, we learn that it gets down to discovering ourselves fully and sharing that with the people we meet. Never for a moment doubt how powerful your presence in others’ lives can be! If you choose to inject warmth, laughter, joy, peace, or safety into another person’s day, these traits can become hallmarks of your life and the cornerstone of what you provide to others.
Bernard J. Bonner, Ph.D.