I grabbed two cups of lousy French coffee and made my way through the crowd towards my brother-in-law. He was smiling. I was nervous. We had exchanged a few letters over the years, and my wife had told me a bunch of stories about him, but this was the first time we’d met in person.
“Thanks for making the drive up here with my sister and parents,” he said. “Not a problem,” I replied. “I’ve never been to France, let alone a Buddhist monastery, so it wasn’t that big of an ask.”
“When you married my sister I bet you didn’t think that her brother would walk around all day in a robe singing funny songs,” he said.
I knew I was going to like my brother-in-law. But one thing that caught me off guard was his sense of humour. He put me at immediate ease.
“I didn’t want to just come out and ask you this,” I said. “But I gotta know something.” “This is interesting,” he replied. “Not your normal first date kind of statement.”
“Alright,” I stumbled. “For the last three years, you’ve been up here with 20 other men, cut off from the outside world, living in an area no larger than a basketball court. My wife told me why you decided to come here. I get that. But what I don’t understand is how you’ve been able to stay sane?”
My brother-in-law let out a short laugh, followed by a long pause. “I never would have imagined I’d be where I am today,” he finally replied. “In the beginning, I seriously questioned my decision. But around the 90-day mark, I felt a shift. I stopped worrying so much about myself and what I wanted to do and I started to think about how I could better connect with the people around me and make a contribution to this community.”
“Life is pretty simple,” he concluded. “If you want to be happy you just have to ask yourself how you can make the lives of the people around you a little bit better.”
I’d been told variations of the words “You can get anything you want out of life as long as you help other people get what they want,” a million times. But something about the confident tone of my brother-in-law’s voice, and the way he carefully crafted and delivered his words, helped to make the lesson finally stick.
Since that day, I’m not going to pretend like I sprinkle rainbow dust on the heads of everyone I come into contact with. I’m still moody. I still annoy people. I still wake up anxious some mornings and immediately think about all the things I need to do.
But today, thanks to my brother-in-law, some days, instead of thinking about myself, I think about what I can do to support the people I care about. It has made me a better person — a happier person. Those days I feel lighter.
What can I do to make the lives of the people around me a little bit better? The question sounds so simple, I know. But if I’ve learned anything in my 41 years it’s that simple advice is often the best advice.
Take a look around you. Identify the people that are truly smiling. Keep your ears open for authentic laughs. These people don’t have a magic potion on their nightstand or a million dollars in their bank account. Happy people come in all shapes and sizes. But they have all come to the realization that life isn’t only about them. The person to the right of you. The person to the left of you. In front and behind. When asked what matters most, when people are old and grey, it’s not a coincidence that the names of their loved ones are the first thing they say.
If you want to be happier, and feel like you are making a difference in the world, by all means, keep striving towards reaching your goals.
Just don’t forget to steal a line from my brother-in-law and also ask yourself what you can do to make the lives of the people around you a little bit better.
A helping hand here. A word of encouragement there. It’s hard to not feel successful if you are doing what you can to be helpful.
This article first appeared on Medium.
Michael Thompson is a career coach who works with business professionals to open more doors and receive greater satisfaction from their work. His career and communication advice can be found in places like Business Insider and Fast Company. He writes to meet people so feel free to say hi here.