A little while ago I read about a study, where people from a few different countries were asked to make themselves happier. The people from non-Western cultures succeeded. Whilst Americans and Europeans didn't manage to improve their happiness at will. And when the scientists looked deeper into the test results, they found that the European/American test subjects tried to make themselves happy by doing or buying things for themselves, while those from other cultures, made themselves happy by doing or buying things for others.
Psychology professor Laurie Santos teaches a wildly popular course at Yale University called 'The Science of Wellbeing,' and she has a podcast called 'The Happiness Lab.'
She has spent a significant part of her career studying what makes people happy, and according to her science is pretty clear on what that is.
Caring for others in whatever form we can is a big piece of the puzzle.
Caring for others, or being of service, can take many forms. Truly listening to a friend in need. Donating to charity. Holding the door open for someone. Volunteering at a soup kitchen. Cooking a meal for a friend. Speaking the truth in a kind way. Giving someone a gift just because. Being available. Giving money to a homeless person you encounter on the street or on the train.
Seva is a sanskrit word that means selfless service; giving freely, no strings attached, without expecting anything in return. This idea lies at the very heart of any spiritual path.
Jesus said that it's harder for a rich person to enter through the gates of heaven than it is for a camel to enter through the eye of a needle. Charity, or zakat, is one of the five pillars of Islam.
And, surprise surprise, it is also a central theme in Buddhist teachings.
Meditation, at first glance, may seem like another self-help technique, and self-help sounds a lot like self-optimisation. How can I feel better so that I can perform better and be more successful? ME, MYSELF and I.
Meditation might start with ourselves. But it definitely doesn't end there. We help ourselves, but only so that we can help others.
There's so much suffering tied up with the concept of me and mine. My pain, my sad thoughts, my stuff, my money.
But as we continue to practice, we begin to see that this 'I' that we are so concerned with, doesn't really exist. The thoughts think themselves. Emotions and moods come and go. They are not us. Our bodies are not solid objects, they are constantly changing. We start to see that when we are good to others, we are also good to ourselves. And when we truly enjoy something, we lose the sense of self.
And further down the contemplative path, we might come to realise, not intellectually, but in our bones, that we are no one and everyone and everything at the same time.
Here is Laurie Santos' top 5 list of things that make people happy, and as you can see they all align very well with what the ancient yogis and the Buddha taught.
Care for /Help others
Healthy habits (sleep, good food, exercise)
Personally I know how good giving and generosity feel. Even so, I often expect something in return when I give. Even when I give a few coins or a five euro bill to a homeless person, I find myself wanting a thank you.
Maybe because we've all grown up in such a transactional culture. If I do this for you, what will you do for me?
But I've also recognised, that the more I practice, both meditation and giving, the more I can let go of wanting something in return.
Come see for yourself!
Photo by Belle Collective via Unsplash