Wednesday, April 18, 2012
40 Pieces of the Happiness Puzzle - Part 3
Feeling happy is a state of being most *everyone wants to experience. There's a bazillion ways to experience feelings of happiness, with certain methods working better for some than others.
This post is the 3rd installment in a series on happiness, which began with Sensory Hedonism, the act of "paying attention to the information you receive from your senses" more than you pay attention to your text messages.
#3: Serving Others
Devoted Service is a respectable and sometimes surprising route to happiness. Serving others in careers such as medicine, teaching, or public service can be more personally rewarding than the personal sacrifices these activities entail.
Service with a smile and a cheerful attitude defines good service. Expressing reluctance, resentment and bitterness while helping someone is not service, though it is often referred to as bad service.
Bad service is the equivalent of hearing,
"I love you but..." or
"You did a great job, but..."
In the same respect, serving others does not require putting oneself lower than the ones we serve. Taking on the persona of martyr or 'holier than thou' also distorts service into something that is not service.
This usually results in people saying things like, "I help everyone, and nobody helps me" or "Why can't these people just work this kinda stuff out." In TV Land this is called,
The Marsha, Marsha, Marsha Complex.
Being other-focused requires respect and empathy, an ability to intuit someone else's emotions. The ability to put yourself in someone else's shoes and see things from their point of view begins with respecting the other person as an individual. This allows you to more easily understand their beliefs and values and why they hold onto them. It is difficult to dislike or refuse help to someone you truly understand.
Happiness through others' happiness is a vicarious activity. When someone else feels joyful, their happiness is contagious, whether you had anything to do with it or not.
If you did have something to do with helping someone feel better, than you can bask in the reflected pleasure, taking private comfort in the knowledge that you are engaging in work that is socially respectable. The value of serving others can be mistaken depending on from which position of the cycle it is viewed. As such, it is best seen in its entirety:
Service is ultimately recognized in a 'what goes around, comes around' kinda way. After having connected with and served another, we increase our sense of identity as we expand our 'selves' - evolving into one larger 'virtual person'.
We incorporate the struggles of others within our psyche, their challenges as well as their celebrations become our own. Serving someone outside oneself is like creating a happiness annuity, 'as you sow, so also shall you reap'.
Serving others can also be a very powerful way of building personal security. When you help others, the likelihood of their helping you increases.
This build-up of "Good Karma" is a growing trend in the western world, a territory that has been adopting eastern beliefs since the 1960s.
Tinseltown moths flitter around the white light of Buddhism by expounding upon these beliefs with TV shows like Avatar: The Last Airbender for children, Little Buddha for young adults, and my all-time favorite, Star Wars for children of all ages.
A life of devotional service is no longer limited to people like Mother Teresa, whose lifetime work in Calcutta served as a classic, joyful example of serving others.
Today, people everywhere have embraced similar activities such as helping the poor, the needy and the general public. Despite what sometimes appears as a world filled with selfishness, there are significant trends toward serving others as we learn, grow and communicate on a larger scale than we ever have before in the history of humanity.
Naturally, there are moments or cases of extreme emergency when it is best to put on one's own mask prior to helping another. Such as in the case of serving drinks at a fancy dinner party.
Despite Martini-mixing emergencies, there is neural proof that helps others brings happiness.
Harbaugh et al. (2007) showed people pictures of their taxes being used to help others and then asked them to donate to charity.
While observing others being helped and while donating, the caudate nucleus and nucleus accumbens, both of which are activated when basic needs are met (including receiving money), lit up on an fMRI brain scan for the participants in this study.
It would appear that observing the joy of another increases positive neural activity, while simultaneously increasing the overall public good.
*This post does not apply to Zombie happiness.