Being able to make a meaningful contribution to the society/community in which we live is a robust pathway to a sense of self-worth and wellbeing.
Making a contribution helps us feel more competent, in control and connected to others – all core psychological needs. Feeling like a useful member of society is a powerful wellness enhancer for the individual.
There are obvious benefits collectively as well if most members of a society can find a way to contribute the best of themselves to the bigger picture.
The beginning of a new year is a good chance for us as individuals to reflect on what contributions we want to make to the communities/societies in which we live. As I start planning my year, it is something I have been thinking about more and more.
Below are the questions I asked myself in this process. Adapt these to your own context.
“What do I mean by ‘finding my voice'”?
In my case this is quite a literal term. The bulk of my professional role involves teaching, so ‘finding my voice’ refers to the quality and content and audience of my teaching over the next year.
Depending on the roles and responsibilities you have ‘finding my voice’ might have quite a different meaning. For a plumber, ‘finding my voice’ may be more about the quality of their workmanship. For an academic ‘finding my voice’ is more about the research they conduct and publish.
Finding your voice doesn’t just relate to your occupation. If you are studying, finding your voice might involve the effort put into your studies or the helping of fellow students. If you are raising a family, finding your voice might be about equipping your kids with the best knowledge and skills you can.
You can find your voice through many activities: volunteering, arts, sport, cultural participation. Not all require that you are literally speaking out loud with the goal of being heard and publicly appreciated. The ‘unsung hero’ is the person who is helping build a better world but isn’t known to most.
“What is it I know well?”
We are more likely to make valuable contributions in areas/topics we know well or are actively learning.
What are those areas for you?
For me it is those areas that were part of my formal training (psychology) and in which I continue to learn and read: mental fitness, self-care, psychological tools, learning and productivity, mental health & behaviour change. Teaching on those topics fuels a virtuous cycle. I learn something –> I teach it –> I better understand it –> I am motivated to learn more –> I teach it 🔄
Given the complexity of many topics, I generally think it is safer to assume one’s best contributions will come from those areas/topics in which we engage on a regular basis (e.g. through work, study etc).
“What don’t I know well?”
It is good to know the boundaries of one’s expertise and knowledge so we don’t tread into areas where our contributions are likely to be less helpful (or may even cause damage).
For example, there are plenty of areas of clinical psychology that I have only a rudimentary knowledge of: relationships, diagnostics, neurobiology. psychological testing (just to name a few). I need to be mindful when speaking about these topics to let the audience know they are not areas of expertise for me, so treat my comments more as opinions than evidence-based science.
Whilst it can be fun to wade into topics we don’t know much about (social media is kinda rife with it), we run the risk of making a detrimental contribution by raising the volume of ill-informed opinion over that of people who know the topic better.
What are some topics that interest you but if you were honest you’d say you didn’t really know much about?
“What platforms/avenues/mediums will I use to make my impact?”
There are many avenues through which we can exert a positive impact on others.
As a teacher I have classrooms (physical and online), learning platforms and social media. A taxi driver has their car and their interactions. A therapist has their therapy room and the one-on-one relationship.
Some of us will use our voices (literally) to speak or our words to write. Others will use their hands to craft and build. Some people will create physical spaces for others whilst others create psychologically healing spaces. So many mediums and platforms and avenues through which we build a better world.
In reflecting on your voice for 2022, would you consider exploring new or different platforms/mediums through which to make your contribution? Perhaps you are a cleaner by day, but at night produce home organisation videos which you post on YouTube. One of the benefits of the tech boom of recent years is the wide range of different platforms through which we can share our knowledge and expertise.
“Who is my audience?”
This is an important consideration.
Social media has trained us to think our audience is the ‘whole world’ but in truth, what you have to contribute is probably not relevant to everyone. For example, I sometimes think my thoughts about mental health and related topics are worthy of wide dissemination (in my more arrogant moments), but in reality, I do better work when I just focus on trying to be a good member of the Flinders University community. Try to help students. Try to help staff.
As your expertise grows, so might your audience, but in the beginning, just aim to help those around you. Who is that for you? What would helping those people most immediate in your life look like? As you feel more competent at helping, you can consider expanding your reach and influence.
“How will I know that I am indeed making a contribution?”
Constant striving to make a contribution but in the absence of seeing the benefits of doing so is a recipe for burnout.
Thus it is important to consider metrics of success. Metrics that you are indeed making a contribution.
For me this includes seeking feedback from students and staff about my teaching and how it can be improved. It might also include recording how many requests for teaching I get during the year (high number = good, low number = something not right).
Do you have any metrics that let you know you are making a meaningful contribution? This could be feedback from clients, follow/like metrics on social media, documenting number of things built/repaired.
Some of the best psychological tools involve simply bringing an existing reality to our conscious attention. For example, gratitude exercises can elicit improved wellbeing by simply directing one’s attention to memories, thoughts and feelings associated with the appreciation of the good things in life.
In this article I’ve encouraged you to kick off 2022 with a consideration of what kinds of contributions you want to make to your community (and how) over the subsequent year, drawing on the things you know well/are good at.
There is no size or type requirements on these contributions, just the invitation to articulate, manifest and grow them.