On Being Useful
“The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.” ― Ralph Waldo Emerson
When my first grandson was two years old, he was completely enthralled by Thomas the Train. I did not know much about Thomas and his friends until Henry introduced me. If you are not familiar with Thomas the Train, it is a fictional locomotive in the British Railway Series books by Wilbert Awdry and his son, first published in England in 1945. The stories have grown into a series of books, cartoons, movies, toys, and all the other paraphernalia that go along with popular children’s characters. My grandson knew all of Thomas’s friends: Gordon, Percy, Edward, Henry, James, Emily, and others, all different engines and cars on the train. I wondered — what is so captivating about these characters? One day, we were listening to a Thomas CD, and the words of the song were revealing. With a delightful English accent, the singer mentioned each of the characters and sang, “They’re the really useful crew, all with different roles to play.” All had jobs that contributed to the successful work of the train. And I had an “aha” moment—being useful matters, even to two-year-olds!
This is not new news, of course. Toddlers want to help their parents and families with “chores” around the house. They want to contribute, to be a part of things. Research shows chores help build short and long term cognitive and social-emotional skills, self-esteem, self-confidence, independence, and resilience (White et al, 2019; Rende, 2014). Even though they can be tedious and boring, we do a disservice to children when we do not expect children to do chores or use chores as punishment. Instead, it is important to take advantage of children’s natural desire to be a part of things and to be helpful, and frame “chores” as important contributions to family life and as ways to care for one another, even though it’s not always fun. At the other end of the age spectrum, older people who no longer feel useful are at higher risk for morbidity and earlier mortality (Gruenewald et al, 2007; Gu et al, 2016). Being useful matters!
Being useful should not be confused with being busy — it’s important that our actions have meaning to us and to others. What makes for meaningful, or useful, actions vary. The quote by Emerson places being useful as the most important purpose of life. President John F. Kennedy understood the importance of meaningful usefulness in terms of contributions to greater society with his inspiring plea, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” Across cultures, being involved in family relationships, along with having work that affords dignity, a sense of accomplishment and personal growth, are high priorities (Silver et al., 2021).
As psychologists, we make a difference for those we serve and work with, our work matters, we are useful. Although sometimes I feel a little too useful, as the new year begins, I’m thinking again, what are the best ways for me to be useful, to make meaningful contributions to my family, colleagues and clients, my profession? How will you be useful?
Dr. Paula Zeanah is a licensed clinical psychologist and current LPA President. Dr. Zeanah is a Professor of Psychiatry & Pediatrics at Tulane University School of Medicine and Research Director at the Cecil J. Picard Center for Child Development & Lifelong Learning at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.
Gruenewald, T.L., Karlamangla, A.S., Greendale, G.A., Singer, B.H., Seeman, T.E. (2007). Feelings of usefulness to others, disability, and mortality in older adults: The MacArthur Study of Successful Aging, The Journals of Gerontology: Series B, 62(1), 28–37. https://doi.org/10.1093/geronb/62.1.P28
Gu, D., Brown, B.L. & Qiu, L. (2016). Self-perceived uselessness is associated with lower likelihood of successful aging among older adults in China. BMC Geriatrics, 16, 172. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12877-016-0348-5
Rende, R. (2014). Richard Rende: Make your kids do their chores (beaconjournal.com)
Silver, L., van Kessel, P., Huang, C., Clancy, L., & Gubbala, S. (2021, November). What makes a life meaningful? Views from 17 advanced economies. Pew Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/global/2021/11/18/what-makes-life-meaningful-views-from-17-advanced-economies/
White, E. M., DeBoer, M., Scharf, R.J. (2019). Associations between household chores and childhood self-competency. Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics, 40(3), 176-182. doi: 10.1097/DBP.0000000000000637