ROCHESTER, Minn. — Many years ago, I was privileged to see a pleasant middle-aged gentleman, an auto mechanic, for some water blisters on his foot. He also had a blood sugar of 250. “They don’t hurt or nothin’; my wife just don’t like the smell,” he said with a friendly chuckle.
The moment he removed his shoes, the diagnosis was clear. He had a serious foot infection. His feet had lost all the sensations from neuropathy. Thus, he couldn’t protect them.
Broad-spectrum antibiotics and surgery followed. The surgeon found a metal fragment in his “water blister” that he never felt. Despite all our efforts, he ended up losing his foot. He lost his foot because he couldn’t feel any pain in his foot.
By sounding the alarm, our pain protects us from physical injury. But we don’t like to be in pain; it is distinctly unpleasant, particularly the more severe and long-lasting kind, and one for which we can’t find any meaning.
The same applies to emotional pain. It tells us right from wrong, places and people to avoid, to exit the loneliness trap, and more, but it can be very unpleasant.
The question is, how do we preserve the protective benefits of the pain without throbbing all the time? Here is a short story that might help.
A teacher sent two of his students, Maya and Nina, to Gloomville and Bloomville, two nearby villages. The goal was to learn about the secret of happiness.
Gloomville, where Maya went, was a poor village. Most of its citizens worked 12-hour days, illness was common, as was distress and burnout. Maya came back depressed. “The unhappiest place on earth,” she said.
Bloomville had a similar story. People worked equally hard, were barely getting by; illnesses were common. But with one exception: The people there were much happier. “I saw poverty and smiles in the same hut. What an inspiring place!” Nina said.
“Can anyone guess, why despite similar struggles, one village is happier than the other?” the teacher asked. No one was sure.
"Tell me how the villagers spend their time?" the teacher asked Maya and Nina.
Maya replied, "They spend most of the day discussing their personal problems. But no one seems to have the answers.”
"In Bloomville also the villagers discuss their problems.” Nina said. “But they devote a lot of time helping each other. That’s when they seem the happiest."
“That’s the key,” the teacher said with a big smile. “We can’t eliminate pain or our focus on the pain. But here is the difference. When we think about our pain, we hurt; when we attend to others’ pain with an intention to heal, our personal pain goes in the background.”
Research shows that the more energy we invest in helping and healing others, the more we help and heal ourselves. Volunteering helps our physical and emotional health and even increases longevity.
The secret to happiness is to be a source of it. And one of the best ways to be a source of happiness is to help someone else be happier.
Think of someone you know who could use a few kind words or a little validation today. Consider investing a few minutes helping that person today or at least this week. Like an echo, the good you send into the world will eventually come back to you.
Dr. Amit Sood answers your questions about stress, resilience, happiness, relationships, and related topics in his column. Email email@example.com.