I always thought putting myself first was the key to happiness. Then I started volunteering at a homeless shelter.

For years, I lived life by a simple mantra: “Put yourself first.” This principle was my guiding compass, the answer to every difficult question and the solution to every problem. It drove my decision to pursue a high-paying corporate job after graduation, maintain a rigorous self-care routine, and invest in personal development courses. I was convinced that prioritizing my own needs and desires above all else was the key to my happiness.

In theory, it sounded perfect — a life where I was in control, where I called the shots. Yet, despite ticking off all the boxes on my ‘self-fulfillment’ checklist, something felt amiss. There was a nagging emptiness that no amount of self-help books or luxury vacations could fill.

Prompted by this sense of discontent, I decided on a whim to volunteer at a local homeless shelter. I thought it would be a one-time gig, a box to tick off on my self-improvement journey. But it turned out to be so much more than that.

I still remember my first day at the shelter — feeling awkward and out of place as I served meals and chatted with the homeless individuals who frequented the place. Despite their circumstances, they showed resilience and positivity that left me humbled.

Over time, as I continued to volunteer and interact with these individuals, something shifted within me. Their stories of struggle and survival struck a chord deep within and sparked a transformation I hadn’t anticipated when I first stepped into that shelter.

The more time I spent volunteering at the shelter, the more jolted I felt from my previous life of self-focus. It seemed like every interaction chipped away at the foundation of my ‘put yourself first’ principle. Suddenly, it wasn’t about me anymore; it was about how I could make a difference in their lives.

Now, as I reflect on my journey from self-centered living to dedicating time serving others, I realize how my view of happiness has evolved. This is what it’s been like to unlearn the belief that my happiness solely depends on putting myself first, and relearn it through the lens of service and empathy.

Unraveling the ‘Me’ Mantra

Venturing into this world of volunteering, I found myself stepping out of my comfort zone. This wasn’t about securing another promotion or crafting a perfect self-care routine. This was real life, with real people dealing with real struggles.

The first few weeks were a whirlwind. Between serving meals, organizing donations, and engaging with the homeless individuals, there was little time for introspection. Yet, every conversation, every shared laugh, every moment of connection seemed to subtly shift something within me.

One encounter that truly turned my perception around was meeting a middle-aged woman named Mary. Despite living on the streets for years, she radiated a warmth and grace that instantly drew me in. Her resilience in the face of adversity was inspiring, but what shocked me was her contentment.

Mary didn’t have a high-paying job or a lavish lifestyle. Yet, she found joy in the smallest things — a hot meal, a warm blanket, a kind word. Her happiness wasn’t tied to putting herself first; it was rooted in community and compassion.

This transformative experience made me question my long-held principles. If someone like Mary, living in such harsh circumstances, could find happiness without focusing solely on herself, what did that mean for me?

As I delved deeper into my volunteer work and connected more with people like Mary, I began to see happiness not as an individual pursuit but as a shared journey.

In the coming section, I’ll dive into the widely accepted belief we’ve all been conditioned to accept: that focusing on ourselves is the ultimate path to happiness. I’ll share how my experiences at the shelter have led me to challenge this view and discover a different perspective on finding true contentment.

Challenging the Self-Centric Notion of Happiness

For years, our society has been advocating a culture of self-love and self-care. We’re encouraged to prioritize our own needs and desires — to put ourselves first in the pursuit of happiness. It’s a concept that is deeply ingrained in us, something we follow almost religiously.

However, my experiences at the homeless shelter showed me a different side of the coin. I saw people who had little to nothing, yet they found joy in the simplest of things. I saw how giving and receiving empathy brought a sense of contentment that was missing from my life.

This was vastly different from the happiness I had been chasing — the one that revolved around promotions, vacations, and personal achievements. Their happiness wasn’t self-centric; it was rooted in community, connection, and compassion.

As I spent more time at the shelter, I couldn’t help but question the conventional wisdom. Was focusing solely on myself really the key to happiness? Or was there more to it than met the eye?

In retrospect, it was this questioning — this challenging of ingrained beliefs — that paved the way for my transformation. In the following section, I’ll share how I went about breaking free from my ‘me-first’ approach to happiness and embraced a new perspective that has brought me a deeper sense of fulfillment.

Shifting from Self-Centric to Service-Oriented

The key to my transformation was a conscious shift in perspective: from self-centric to service-oriented. I began with small steps. Instead of spending my free time on self-improvement books and luxury vacations, I started dedicating more hours at the shelter.

I listened to their stories, shared their joys and sorrows, and did what I could to contribute positively towards their lives. This shift was challenging; it required patience and a willingness to step outside my comfort zone. But the more I engaged with them, the more enriched I felt.

This journey wasn’t about denying my needs or neglecting self-care. Instead, it was about expanding my understanding of happiness beyond my personal bubble. It was about realizing that true contentment often comes from helping others, from being part of a community.

If you’re feeling stuck in the pursuit of self-centric happiness, consider this: maybe the key to fulfillment lies not just within us, but also in our connections with others. It’s worth exploring the joy that comes from serving others, from being part of something bigger than ourselves.

In the next section, I’ll share some practical steps on how you can start this journey of transformation and find a deeper sense of fulfillment.

Stepping Back and Moving Forward

Throughout this transformation, I had to take a step back and take a hard look at my life. I had to acknowledge my dissatisfaction, my struggles, and the emptiness I felt despite seemingly having it all. It wasn’t an easy process. It required me to question societal expectations and conditioning that I had accepted as truths.

I realized that much of what I believed to be the path to happiness was dictated by external influences. But the real question was: What did I want? What were my personal ambitions and desires, separate from societal norms?

The answers to these questions didn’t come overnight. It took time, patience, and a lot of introspection. But slowly, I started aligning my life with my true nature rather than what was externally imposed.

Here are the key steps that helped me in this journey:

  • Acknowledging my dissatisfaction and struggles.
  • Questioning societal expectations and myths.
  • Identifying personal ambitions and desires.
  • Seeking self-empowerment by breaking free from societal conditioning.
  • Aligning my life with my true nature.

This journey has been a process of unlearning and relearning, of breaking free from societal expectations and learning to live life on my own terms.

Picture of Lucas Graham

Lucas Graham

Lucas Graham, based in Auckland, writes about the psychology behind everyday decisions and life choices. His perspective is grounded in the belief that understanding oneself is the key to better decision-making. Lucas’s articles are a mix of personal anecdotes and observations, offering readers relatable and down-to-earth advice.

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