Thank you for reading

I didn’t think I was going to make a new year’s resolution this year, but it happens that I noticed something about myself in the last days of the year that I’d really like to change. It is this: I’m often reluctant to accept offers of help, even to the point of ingratitude.

This year, I resolve to gratefully accept offers of help.

Thank you note with smiley face , isolated on white

Here follow some words, probably more than are necessary, to clarify why I’ve chosen this resolution.

A few people I’ve mentioned it to have understandably taken it to mean that I’m in need of more help than I’m willing to ask for or accept. That’s fair enough to assume. I know that many people find that to be the case with them. Most of Facebook is people saying they need to get better at accepting help because they’re overwhelmed by one thing or another and struggling to cope. That is thankfully not the case with me.

My problem isn’t that I need help, it’s that I can be really crap at interpreting offers of help.

I do know what an offer of help really means. It means someone thinks things could be made easier for me and they are willing, possibly at a cost to themselves, to make it so. It could be as simple as I’ve got my hands full so I’m doing something one-handed that would be more straightforward with two, and they don’t want to just sit and watch me while twiddling their thumbs. In fact it’s this sort of small scale situation that tipped me off to the whole issue.

Even though I know what the offer really means, in the moment I often interpret a helping hand as an implication of inability. An accusation that without help I would be unable to do whatever it is I’m doing. Because of this unfounded interpretation, instead of gratitude you may instead be greeted with resentment. Worse if instead of offering you just jump in and start doing things for me. Worse and worse again if in trying to help you inadvertently make things more difficult. Gratitude, if it was ever present, is quickly swept away. The thought counts for little, at least until my rational self talks the rest of me into begrudgingly acknowledging it.

This, clearly, is not how it should be.

It’s well established that emotions are not only the motivators of our actions but they are also a reflection of them. We become happy by acting happy as much as we act happy because we are happy. On that basis, I intend to draw my own attention as much as I can to circumstances in which I should be grateful, and to express it. As much as possible I’ll do that by accepting offers of help, even if I don’t need it. Sometimes that’s not a reasonable thing to do (e.g., there’s nothing the other person can reasonably help with, or the cost/benefit is so out of whack it would be unkind to accept). In such cases all I can do is take the time to give specific and genuine thanks, and an explanation of why I’m not accepting the offer.

Why accept help that isn’t needed? A key insight that I hit upon when considering this resolution is that the primary beneficiary of an offer of help is not always the recipient. Often it’s the person offering who benefits most from the interaction. Humans, given the right circumstances, are a generally altruistic bunch, and we derive pleasure from knowing that we’ve helped someone.

If you help me out of the bus with a buggy you probably haven’t actually made the activity much easier for me. We have a lightweight buggy that I can comfortably lift on and off a bus by myself, and the overhead of coordinating with another person to lift it would probably slow me down. But you’ll very likely feel good about offering, and much more so if I accept. If I thank you for the offer but turn it down — no thanks, I’m fine by myself — it robs you of that simple pleasure.

Moreover, people who aren’t even anywhere nearby can get looped into this whole equation. Imagine you offer to help me off the bus with the buggy and I turn you down. Later you offer to help someone up the steps with their luggage but they don’t need your help. How many times do you need your goodwill turned away — even politely and gratefully — before you stop offering? Eventually you encounter someone who would be delighted for you to lend a hand but the people who came before have spoiled the party for everyone by spurning your help.

That’s why my resolution isn’t limited to cases in which the help is likely to be directly useful. Allowing someone to feel good for helping, and giving myself a chance to appreciate the generosity that is their motivation, and to practice the action of gratitude, is an act of kindness to both of us.