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Find Your Purpose By Helping Others

Find Your Purpose By Helping Others

I remember how in November 2013 my wife (and fellow Intentional Insights co-founder) and I, together with a great bunch of people, organized a spaghetti dinner fundraiser at our Unitarian Universalist church in Columbus, OH. The event was a big success, with more than 120 attendees, a music program, a raffle and silent auction. We raised over $2000 for the Mid-Ohio Food Bank. It might surprise you that the dinner organizers and volunteers came from Columbus secular humanist, atheist, and skeptic groups, including the UU secular group, as this religious denomination embraces believers and non-believers alike. The dinner honored the Flying Spaghetti Monster, a light satire meant to promote reason-based scientific education in biology classes. No belief in a deity was required to participate in community-oriented civic engagement at this dinner – in fact, the event was explicitly oriented toward secular-minded folks.

The Scientific Benefits of Helping Others

Studies indicate that opportunities to serve others, whether in civic, private, or professional settings, as well as charitable giving, result in a stronger sense of purpose and meaning in life, leading to better mental and physical well-being. This does not mean that serving others is necessary for a strong sense of meaning and purpose, but such civic engagement generally helps contribute to gaining this sense. Volunteering together with others in your community enables the creation of strong social bonds, which adds further to a sense of meaningfulness. In the United States, religion offers the main venue for community belonging, and also for working with others to pursue civic engagement. Civic engagement ranges from donating one’s time to bring about a better world such as through the spaghetti dinner fundraiser described above, to pursuing social justice through advocacy and lobbying, as exemplified by BREAD, the main interfaith social justice organization in Central Ohio. No wonder that the majority of the research indicates that church-going believers in the US generally have a stronger sense of life meaning. However, as my research illustrates, other societies create many alternative venues besides religious ones that provided similar opportunities and the benefits that can result.

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Helping Others In the United States

So is there something similar happening in North America? Here’s the thing: there are more and more secular communities around, and they are actively participating in social justice activities. Just here in Columbus, besides the FSM dinner, the Humanist Community of Central Ohio does regular blood donations, which were featured in the main newspaper in Central Ohio, participates in LGBTQ activism, and promotes other forms of social and economic civic engagement. The local chapter of the United Coalition of Reason hosted a walk-a-thon to benefit the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, part of a broader national effort by the Foundation Beyond Belief. And COUNT, a Columbus secular group, is explicitly dedicated to volunteering. My wife and I have also led a year-long effort to get BREAD to open up its doors to secular folks, and then successfully mobilized a large contingent of non-believers to attend this event. National secular organizations, such as the Secular Student Alliance and the Secular Coalition for America, increasingly promote civic engagement. More and more opportunities are emerging for nonbelievers who want to volunteer together with others who share their value system, whether for more secular-themed causes such as Camp Quest, reason-based summer camps for children and youth, or social justice in general.

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Effective Altruism

A particularly promising new trend in civic engagement is Effective Altruism. This movement is devoted to using well-reasoned, evidence-based approaches to find the most effective ways to improve the world, especially through charitable giving. Prominent notables are turning to Effective Altruism as the most reason-based, rational strategy of giving. Effective Altruism is endorsed by famous philosophers such as Peter Singer.

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Practical Take-Aways

What are the practical takeaways here? Whether you are a believer or secular, to gain a greater sense of purpose and meaning in life it helps to participate in civic engagement with others from your community. It might be more challenging if you are a non-believer, but there are plenty of local secular groups around the United States that offer opportunities to contribute to social justice on a local level. Take the initiative to push your local communities to do service for the social good. You will likely help yourself and others find a more powerful perception of life meaning, increase mental and physical well-being for yourself and others, and you can gain greater agency through achieving your personal and social goals. Here, altruism and self-orientation combine for the win!

  • Have you done any volunteering with others in your social circle?
  • If so, what benefits do you think you gained?
  • If not, what are practical steps you can take to help yourself and others in your social circle engage in social service activities?

Featured photo credit: Community via flickr.com

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More by this author

Dr. Gleb Tsipursky

Cognitive neuroscientist and behavioral economist; CEO of Disaster Avoidance Experts; multiple best-selling author

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Last Updated on January 15, 2021

7 Ways To Have More Confident Body Language

7 Ways To Have More Confident Body Language

The popular idiomatic saying that “actions speak louder than words” has been around for centuries, but even to this day, most people struggle with at least one area of nonverbal communication. Consequently, many of us aspire to have more confident body language but don’t have the knowledge and tools necessary to change what are largely unconscious behaviors.

Given that others’ perceptions of our competence and confidence are predominantly influenced by what we do with our faces and bodies, it’s important to develop greater self-awareness and consciously practice better posture, stance, eye contact, facial expressions, hand movements, and other aspects of body language.

Posture

First things first: how is your posture? Let’s start with a quick self-assessment of your body.

  • Are your shoulders slumped over or rolled back in an upright posture?
  • When you stand up, do you evenly distribute your weight or lean excessively to one side?
  • Does your natural stance place your feet relatively shoulder-width apart or are your feet and legs close together in a closed-off position?
  • When you sit, does your lower back protrude out in a slumped position or maintain a straight, spine-friendly posture in your seat?

All of these are important considerations to make when evaluating and improving your posture and stance, which will lead to more confident body language over time. If you routinely struggle with maintaining good posture, consider buying a posture trainer/corrector, consulting a chiropractor or physical therapist, stretching daily, and strengthening both your core and back muscles.

Facial Expressions

Are you prone to any of the following in personal or professional settings?

  • Bruxism (tight, clenched jaw or grinding teeth)
  • Frowning and/or furrowing brows
  • Avoiding direct eye contact and/or staring at the ground

If you answered “yes” to any of these, then let’s start by examining various ways in which you can project confident body language through your facial expressions.

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1. Understand How Others Perceive Your Facial Expressions

A December 2020 study by UC Berkeley and Google researchers utilized a deep neural network to analyze facial expressions in six million YouTube clips representing people from over 140 countries. The study found that, despite socio-cultural differences, people around the world tended to use about 70% of the same facial expressions in response to different emotional stimuli and situations.[1]

The study’s researchers also published a fascinating interactive map to demonstrate how their machine learning technology assessed various facial expressions and determined subtle differences in emotional responses.

This study highlights the social importance of facial expressions because whether or not we’re consciously aware of them—by gazing into a mirror or your screen on a video conferencing platform—how we present our faces to others can have tremendous impacts on their perceptions of us, our confidence, and our emotional states. This awareness is the essential first step towards

2. Relax Your Face

New research on bruxism and facial tension found the stresses and anxieties of Covid-19 lockdowns led to considerable increases in orofacial pain, jaw-clenching, and teeth grinding, particularly among women.[2]

The National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research estimates that more than 10 million Americans alone have temporomandibular joint dysfunction (TMJ syndrome), and facial tension can lead to other complications such as insomnia, wrinkles, dry skin, and dark, puffy bags under your eyes.[3])

To avoid these unpleasant outcomes, start practicing progressive muscle relaxation techniques and taking breaks more frequently throughout the day to moderate facial tension.[4] You should also try out some biofeedback techniques to enhance your awareness of involuntary bodily processes like facial tension and achieve more confident body language as a result.[5]

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3. Improve Your Eye Contact

Did you know there’s an entire subfield of kinesic communication research dedicated to eye movements and behaviors called oculesics?[6] It refers to various communication behaviors including direct eye contact, averting one’s gaze, pupil dilation/constriction, and even frequency of blinking. All of these qualities can shape how other people perceive you, which means that eye contact is yet another area of nonverbal body language that we should be more mindful of in social interactions.

The ideal type (direct/indirect) and duration of eye contact depends on a variety of factors, such as cultural setting, differences in power/authority/age between the parties involved, and communication context. Research has shown that differences in the effects of eye contact are particularly prominent when comparing East Asian and Western European/North American cultures.[7]

To improve your eye contact with others, strive to maintain consistent contact for at least 3 to 4 seconds at a time, consciously consider where you’re looking while listening to someone else, and practice eye contact as much as possible (as strange as this may seem in the beginning, it’s the best way to improve).

3. Smile More

There are many benefits to smiling and laughing, and when it comes to working on more confident body language, this is an area that should be fun, low-stakes, and relatively stress-free.

Smiling is associated with the “happiness chemical” dopamine and the mood-stabilizing hormone, serotonin. Many empirical studies have shown that smiling generally leads to positive outcomes for the person smiling, and further research has shown that smiling can influence listeners’ perceptions of our confidence and trustworthiness as well.

4. Hand Gestures

Similar to facial expressions and posture, what you do with your hands while speaking or listening in a conversation can significantly influence others’ perceptions of you in positive or negative ways.

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It’s undoubtedly challenging to consciously account for all of your nonverbal signals while simultaneously trying to stay engaged with the verbal part of the discussion, but putting in the effort to develop more bodily awareness now will make it much easier to unconsciously project more confident body language later on.

5. Enhance Your Handshake

In the article, “An Anthropology of the Handshake,” University of Copenhagen social anthropology professor Bjarke Oxlund assessed the future of handshaking in wake of the Covid-19 pandemic:[8]

“Handshakes not only vary in function and meaning but do so according to social context, situation and scale. . . a public discussion should ensue on the advantages and disadvantages of holding on to the tradition of shaking hands as the conventional gesture of greeting and leave-taking in a variety of circumstances.”

It’s too early to determine some of the ways in which Covid-19 has permanently changed our social norms and professional etiquette standards, but it’s reasonable to assume that handshaking may retain its importance in American society even after this pandemic. To practice more confident body language in the meantime, the video on the science of the perfect handshake below explains what you need to know.

6. Complement Your Verbals With Hand Gestures

As you know by now, confident communication involves so much more than simply smiling more or sounding like you know what you’re talking about. What you do with your hands can be particularly influential in how others perceive you, whether you’re fidgeting with an object, clenching your fists, hiding your hands in your pockets, or calmly gesturing to emphasize important points you’re discussing.

Social psychology researchers have found that “iconic gestures”—hand movements that appear to be meaningfully related to the speaker’s verbal content—can have profound impacts on listeners’ information retention. In other words, people are more likely to engage with you and remember more of what you said when you speak with complementary hand gestures instead of just your voice.[9]

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Further research on hand gestures has shown that even your choice of the left or right hand for gesturing can influence your ability to clearly convey information to listeners, which supports the notion that more confident body language is readily achievable through greater self-awareness and deliberate nonverbal actions.[10]

Final Takeaways

Developing better posture, enhancing your facial expressiveness, and practicing hand gestures can vastly improve your communication with other people. At first, it will be challenging to consciously practice nonverbal behaviors that many of us are accustomed to performing daily without thinking about them.

If you ever feel discouraged, however, remember that there’s no downside to consistently putting in just a little more time and effort to increase your bodily awareness. With the tips and strategies above, you’ll be well on your way to embracing more confident body language and amplifying others’ perceptions of you in no time.

More Tips on How to Develop a Confident Body Language

Featured photo credit: Maria Lupan via unsplash.com

Reference

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