In an earlier post I talked about biophilia, the idea that people are inherently happier when they are near other living things such as plants or animals, which led me to ponder what else makes people truly happy. In our society, people often adopt the mantra that happiness is a state of mind; nothing external will cultivate happiness, instead individuals must dig within themselves to find it. Why else would people spend so much money on self-help seminars and personal-development workshops? Many people grow up with the idea ingrained in his or her mind that it is up to the individual to choose to be happy.

I disagree with this idea because it requires people to focus inward and have concern for only their own happiness, which is a dreadfully lonely way to live. Additionally, people who are depressed suffer from a highly self-focused state of mind, compounding their unhappy feelings. I believe that people can only achieve true happiness after they cease to selfishly focus on themselves and instead direct their efforts towards making the world a more harmonious place as a whole, by spreading love and acceptance to all living things. The Dalai Lama has said that by practicing altruism, your mind broadens to a concern for others thus making your own individual problems and suffering appear smaller. He also has said that a compassionate attitude makes it easier to communicate with fellow human beings, therefore inviting more genuine friends, positivity, and love into your life- and isn’t love the greatest source of happiness?

Scientific research has shown that compassion does indeed make people happier. MRI brain scans have found that when people generate feelings of kindness and compassion, there is a strong increase in activity on the left side of the prefrontal cortex, the side where people experience positive emotions such as joy and happiness- otherwise known as the brain’s “pleasure centers”. Studies have also shown that people who spend money on others are more happy than people who spend money on themselves. Furthermore, studies have shown that people who volunteer regularly tend to live longer, healthier, and happier lives, especially if the volunteer chooses a cause he or she feels particularly passionate about. Perhaps happiness isn’t a choice, but rather something you can tangibly cultivate simply by spreading kindness and generosity.

So why do people focus their time and energy on hedonistic happiness instead of say, volunteering at a soup kitchen? I believe this is where the ego comes into play. Many people are so starved for success and recognition that selflessly giving themselves for a greater good does not seem like the path to happiness. Being compassionate is also seldom immediately rewarding, often involving some level of grit without instantaneous payoffs in which our society is so accustomed. In some cases, compassion may not be appreciated or even recognized. However, giving, whether it be our time, money, or just a helping hand, will always leads to longer-lasting fulfillment, far beyond that of wealth or success.

So celebrate others’ successes, learn to forgive, and always radiate love and kindness. You’ll be happy you did.