You will never find happiness because happiness can’t be found. According to researchers, your brain is hardwired for generosity. The idea that we can improve our sense of well-being through consumption or materialism is the happiness myth. Instead, happiness is the byproduct of empathy and compassion. God wants you to be happy. It’s just not the kind of happiness that you expect.
An Anglican priest and Buddhist monk walk into a bar …
In April 2015, Archbishop Tutu and the Dalai Lama met in Dharamsala, India, for a weeklong conversation about joy.
Joy is a slippery topic, even for spiritual heavyweights like Desmond Tutu and Tenzin Gyatso. Yet, despite their theological and cultural differences, the longtime friends agreed on a fundamental truth about happiness:
You can’t find happiness by looking for it.
Sounds like a Zen riddle, right? It’s not. You will never find happiness because happiness can’t be found. Real happiness – deep-down joy that oozes from your pores – isn’t about chasing down your wants or crossing items off your wish list.
It’s about other people.
Neuroscience and the key to happiness
In The Book of Joy, Doug Abrams documents the conversation between Archbishop Tutu and the Dalai Lama, and provides tons of supporting information about our shared search for joy. According to Abrams, happiness (joy) is a lasting sense of well-being. Citing research from neuroscientist Richard Davidson, Abrams describes the four brain circuits that determine our well being:
- Your ability to maintain positive states: This relates to our ability to experience positive emotions on a consistent basis. According to Archbishop Tutu and the Dalai Lama (and pretty much every faith tradition), this begins with love and compassion.
- Your ability to recover from negative states: Happiness isn’t about avoiding suffering or difficult circumstances. Bad things happen to everyone. The trick is learning how to recover from bad things and avoid falling into a black hole of despair.
- Your ability to focus: You can’t experience happiness and lasting well being if your mind is racing in a dozen different directions. Prayer, meditation and other spiritual exercises help focus your thoughts and lay a foundation for happiness in your life.
- Your ability to be generous: The other three circuits set the stage for happiness. Generosity is the main event. If you’ve ever had a good feeling when you volunteered at a nonprofit or did a good deed for a stranger you’ve already experienced this firsthand. Your brain is literally hardwired to care about the good of others.
“(If) you are setting out to be joyful, you are not going to end up being joyful. You’re going to find yourself turned in on yourself. It’s like a flower. You open, you blossom, really because of other people.”
–ARCHBISHOP DESMOND TUTU
Debunking the happiness myth
Some of life’s best moments happen when we step away from our personal dramas and invest in other people. Teaching a kid to ride a bike. Spending time with a sick friend. Serving Thanksgiving dinner to the homeless. It feels good to help other people. But when it comes to our personal happiness, we forget about the adrenalin rush that comes from serving others.
Instead of looking outward, we look inward. We buy. We eat. We drink. We consume in the insane hope that it will satisfy our cravings for peace, contentment and meaning.
That’s not how happiness works. The emotional bump we get from consumption quickly fades. The first bowl of ice cream we eat is bliss. The second bowl is tolerable. The third is something we force ourselves to endure.
We keep looking for happiness in all the wrong places (Abrams calls it the “hedonic treadmill”) when the only thing capable of bringing us real joy is right in front of our eyes: generosity and the simple willingness to pursue good for others.
Happiness is the byproduct of empathy and kindness
At a recent gathering of the Caritas community, someone asked whether happiness is a realistic expectation for our daily lives. After all, happiness is the result of generosity and although generous living looks good on paper, it loses its luster when you’re stuck in a crappy job or surrounded by sadness and people you can’t possibly help.
One of the group members works in the healthcare profession. He shared that it’s true — maintaining a sense of happiness when his job forces him to constantly interact with the suffering and smells of chronically ill people sometimes feels impossible. But he said that God speaks to him through their suffering. When he consciously practices empathy, he is filled with joy.
Other people remind us to be grateful. They provide opportunities for compassion. We experience happiness not as a goal, but as a byproduct of the empathy and kindness we practice in the lived moments of daily life, even when those moments are filled with suffering and negativity.
“People think about money or fame or power … One individual, no matter how powerful, how clever, cannot survive without other human beings. So the best way to fulfill your wishes, to achieve your goals, is to help others.”
–The DALAI LAMA
So, doesn’t God want us to be happy?
Does God want us to be happy? It’’s a fair question, given the amount of suffering in the world.
If your idea of happiness is a new car, a super-sexy spouse or an impressive bank account, then no. God could care less about your happiness.
But if you define happiness the way Jesus defines happiness, then your happiness is the only thing God cares about.
Because real happiness is the inevitable result of generosity, the unavoidable outcome of a life lived for other people.