Marketing executives want us to believe that happiness lies in a product that will taste delicious, magically fill our bank accounts, or transform us into a supermodel that looks not a day past 20. Our social norms promise that happiness will lie in status, accomplishments, relationships and possessions. We are always on the lookout for the next thing: once we have the perfect mate, we look for the perfect home; once we’ve found the perfect home, we look for a bigger one, or a new car or a bigger bank account; once the perfect job is attained, we look for the next promotion or look forward to retirement or a new job. We seem to be on a constant and futile chase after the promised land of lasting happiness.
Dan Gilbert of Harvard University has shown that we are, in fact, terrible at predicting what will lead to happiness. Our norms, for example, would suggest that a winning lottery ticket would make our happiness scores skyrocket while paralysis would make them plummet. Research shows, however, that winning the lottery ticket, though it creates an initial rise in well-being, does not lead to lasting happiness over time nor does becoming paraplegic lead to lasting unhappiness.
A closer look at our own experiences as well as research data suggests that the secret to lasting happiness does not lie in any goods, relationships or achievements, but rather in what we can give: not just material gifts, but gifts of time, gifts of love, gifts of ourselves. Compassion and service don’t just make us happy but they also have a host of other associated benefits and may even contribute to a longer life. Here’s how:
Compassion makes you happy
A brain-imaging study headed by neuroscientist Jordan Grafman from the National Institute of Health showed that the “pleasures centers” in the brain, i.e. the parts of our brains that are active when we experience pleasure (like dessert, money, sex) are equally active when we observe someone giving money to charity as when we receive money ourselves! Giving to others even increases well-being above and beyond spending money on ourselves.
In a revealing experiment published in Science by Harvard Business School professor Michael Norton, participants received a sum of money. Half of the participants were instructed to spend the money on themselves and the other half were told to spend the money on others. At the end of the study, participants that had spent money on others felt significantly happier than those that had spent money on themselves. This is true even for infants! A recent study by Elizabeth Dunn and colleagues at the University of British Columbia shows that, even in children as young as 2, giving treats to others increases their happiness more than receiving treats themselves.
Compassion makes you wise
One reason compassion makes us happy is by broadening our perspective beyond ourselves. We know from research on anxiety and depression that these tense and unhappy states are highly self-focused. During stress or sadness, we are usually focused on the things that are going wrong in our lives. Research shows that depression and anxiety are linked to a state of self-focus, a preoccupation with “me, myself, and I.”
When you do something for someone else, however, that state of self-focus immediately dissolves. Now think of a time you were feeling blue and suddenly a close friend or relative called you for urgent help with a problem. All of a sudden your attention was on helping them. Rather than feeling blue, you began to feel energized and before you knew it, you may even have felt better and had gained some perspective on your own situation as well.
Compassion makes you attractive
Just like we want time and money, above all, most of us want to be loved. We seek love at work in the form of recognition, in our families in the form of respect and kindness, in our romantic relationships in the form of intimacy and social support. Ideally, we want to have good relationships and we want people to like us.
In seeking this love, we can go to all sorts of lengths including focusing on our appearance (think anti-wrinkle chemical peels or muscle-inflating protein powders) and putting on a show or facade to impress others and to conceal our weaknesses and vulnerability. These efforts often fail and even have the opposite effect we intended. A study examining the trait most highly valued in potential romantic partners suggests a different story: both men and women rate kindness as one of their most desired traits.
Compassion gives you money and time
In addition to happiness and love, we all want more time and money. However intriguing new studies by Zoe Chance of Harvard Business School shows that, when we do compassion, our sense of time expands; and when we give money away, our sense of abundance and wealth also increases. Anyone who has ever engaged in helping someone knows that the sense of satisfaction and fulfillment that ensues is a happiness far beyond that of any material good or success. It is on another level of well-being altogether just how satisfying and fulfilling that experience can be.
Compassion boosts your health
Research by Ed Diener and Martin Seligman suggests that connecting with others in a meaningful way helps us enjoy better mental and physical health, speeds up recovery from disease, and research by Stephanie Brown at Stony Brook University has shown that it may even lengthen our life. Why does compassion lead to health benefits? A clue to this question rests in a fascinating new study by Steve Cole and Barbara Fredrickson that evaluated levels of inflammation at the cellular level in people that describe themselves as “very happy.”
Inflammation is at the root of cancer and other diseases and is generally high in people who live under a lot of stress. We might expect that inflammation would be lower for people with higher levels of happiness. Cole and Fredrickson found that this was only the case for certain “very happy” people. They found that people who were happy because they lived the “good life” (sometimes also known as “hedonic happiness”) had high inflammation levels but that, on the other hand, people who were happy because they lived a life of purpose or meaning (sometimes also known as “eudaimonic happiness”) had low inflammation levels.
A life of meaning and purpose is one focused less on satisfying oneself and more on others. It is a life rich in compassion, altruism and greater meaning.
Compassion uplifts and spreads
Why are the lives of people like Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, and Desmond Tutu so inspiring? Research by Jonathan Haidt, formerly at the University of Virginia and now at New York University, suggests that seeing someone helping another person creates a state of “elevation.” Have you ever been moved to tears by seeing someone’s loving and compassionate behavior? Haidt’s data suggests that it may be this elevation that then inspires us to help others—and it may just be the force behind a chain reaction of giving.
Social scientists James Fowler of UC San Diego and Nicolas Christakis of Harvard demonstrated that helping is contagious—acts of generosity and kindness beget more generosity in a chain reaction of goodness. You may have seen one of the news reports about chain reactions that occur when someone pays for the coffee of the driver behind them at a drive-through restaurant or at a highway toll booth. People keep the generous behavior going for hours. Your act of compassion therefore uplifts others and makes them happy. You may not know it but by uplifting others you are also helping yourself: research by Fowler and Christakis has shown that happiness spreads and that if the people around us are happy, we, in turn become happier as well.
Compassion is 100 percent natural
One reason why compassion might feel so good is that it’s natural to us. Though economists and grumps may ba-humbug, research suggests that, at our core, both animals and human beings are loving, generous, and kind. Ground-breaking research by John Decety at the University of Chicago showed that even rats are driven to empathize and help out another suffering rat.
Research with infants backs up these claims. Michael Tomasello and other scientists at the Max Planck Institute have found that infants automatically engage in helpful behavior. Recent research by David Rand at Harvard shows that the first impulse of adults, too, is to help others. Research by Dale Miller at Stanford suggests that the difference between children and adults is that adults will often stop themselves because they worry that others think they are self-interested.
What can we take away from this research? Material goods may give us fun short-term pleasure but long-term happiness and fulfillment lies less in what we can take than what we can give. Compassion may just be the best kept secret to being not just happy but also healthy, wealthy and wise.