Demystifying Happiness: Why Being Happy Is the Best Way to Help Others (Part One of a Two-Part Series on Happiness)
My husband and I were married in India. We spent our honeymoon in a remote government bungalow next to a 3000-year-old Indian village that was small in size, but teeming with peacocks and people. The head schoolmaster, who was one of the few people there who spoke English, proudly took us on a tour to meet everyone, which was pretty uncomfortable, because, we found out later, he presented us (in Hindi) as some kind of visiting celebrities.
We both clearly remember one couple who stood out, even now, almost forty years later. The wife was sitting by an open cooking fire in a room with a dirt floor and no windows, while her husband, who was the assistant schoolmaster, sat next to her, helping her cook. They were simply radiant. Their smiles were filled with joy, and it felt like they were connecting with us in a deep way, as fellow human beings on this planet, rather than someone important (which is what the others mistakenly thought). They struck us as genuinely happy.
What makes a person happy? Research says that it’s thoughts and actions, more than circumstances, that determine happiness on a daily basis. In other words, it’s not the actual situation we are in, good or bad, that determines happiness, but how we perceive it. As everyone knows, neither money nor fame can make a person happy.
The Secrets of True Happiness
What is it that makes a person happy, then? We all know that health, diet, exercise and sleep play a major role. Lots of fruits and veggies help us feel healthier and keep our moods more stable. Regular vigorous exercise, including cardio, weights, and stretching, helps. An early and regular bedtime helps, because the brain shrinks while we sleep, allowing spinal fluid to wash away plaque in the brain, much like a washing machine, helping us to think more clearly and achieve our goals during the day.
Happy people don’t look on life as a competition with winners and losers, and don’t compare themselves with others. After all, even if you have 500 Facebook friends, there will be someone else with more. If your child can walk at nine months, there will be some other kid walking sooner. Happy people are not obsessed with their appearance or social status, and don’t look to others to mirror reinforcement about their self worth. A happy person doesn’t feel superior or inferior. It’s sufficient just to feel “I’m myself, and that’s good enough.”
Happy people tend to have less anxiety. They are productive in the workplace, good at solving problems. Happy people like activities that are challenging. They volunteer more, donate more, and tip more. Happy people have empathy, are able to see the other person’s point of view. While savoring the present, they look to the future with eagerness and enthusiasm. They feel that life is meaningful and that they are part of a larger purpose.
Tapping into the Essential Happiness Within Us
Even beyond these points, happy people have authenticity, meaning that they do not identify with a role, but with humanity itself. When you are checking out at the grocery store, the lady at the counter often says, “Did you find everything OK?” (a bit late at this point, but never mind). It would be easy enough to fall into the role of customer and cashier, because on the surface, that is the situation. However, the person behind the register, clicking your groceries one by one, is a real human being with a family and dreams of her own. If I identify with my humanity more than my role, I am able to immediately see the light in that person. A smile, eye contact, and a simple, “Yes, I found everything,” is enough to have a small transformational effect. “Great, have a good day.” “You too.” The encounter, still serving its superficial purpose, becomes an exchange of deep easiness and kindness, however small.
What makes this happen? Perhaps because a happy person is used to being herself, without the need to stand out or be special. Being a human being is plenty special all by itself. There’s no need to be in control or otherwise gather attention. A happy person does not need to feel “I am right,” and therefore the other person is wrong. There is no need to build up a sense of self, because it’s already there. When a person is confident about her own sense of self, it’s easier to communicate with someone else as a genuine human being. Feeling dominates thinking.
There is a common thread to these various descriptions of a happy person: a happy person knows herself. She identifies with herself as a human being before any of the roles she plays. This is where Transcendental Meditation comes in. As a woman sits and quietly experiences more subtle areas of her awareness, she loses her tiredness, loses her guilt, loses her stresses. Her natural state is to be happy, so all meditation does is remove the blocks, something like parting the clouds and then the sun shines, as it always has. The natural result is that she gains a sense of purpose. Without thinking about it, she finds more meaning in herself and everything she does. As Oprah said, “People who practice TM regularly sleep better, experience less depression and anxiety and feel an overall greater sense of wellbeing.”
Like the tip of an iceberg, the roles we play are only on the surface. The essence of who we are transcends our thoughts and emotions, our hopes and dreams: at our core we are pure love, pure happiness, pure bliss. Our twice-daily sessions of Transcendental Meditation give us the time and space to explore this part of ourselves, which can get lost in the hustle and bustle of daily life. The more this unseen part of our life emerges, the happier we are and the more we can spontaneously share that with others.
It seems that happy people intrinsically understand that the purpose of life is to be happy. It’s because life itself is good, and like great music, it’s meant to be enjoyed. In the words of Maharishi, the founder of the Transcendental Meditation technique, “I see only one ‘do’ in life, that is: vibrate happiness.”
And probably most important, beyond her own happiness, a happy person senses a larger purpose, which is to contribute to the happiness of others. An 80-year Harvard study showed that the single factor for becoming happy is to nurture relationships and regularly help others. “The purpose of human life,” said Albert Schweitzer, “is to serve, and show compassion and the will to help others.”
This is not about thinking “I want to make other people happy.” This is about cultivating inner happiness and spontaneously sharing it with everyone you meet, like a light bulb which, once lit, sheds light all around.
Stay tuned for Part 2, which explores how simply being happy yourself contributes to the welfare of others.
About the Author
Linda Egenes writes about green and healthy living and is the author of six books, including The Ramayana: A New Retelling of Valmiki’s Ancient Epic—Complete and Comprehensive, co-authored with Kumuda Reddy, M.D.