I’ve been thinking about personal happiness as it relates to the state of the world….
Is it self-indulgent to focus on being happy? What about all the suffering, isn’t it more important to focus our efforts on others?
As I sat with these questions, I came across some sage advice from Sharon Salzberg, “I don’t see how any of us can keep giving when we feel depleted and exhausted, when generosity is trying to come out of nothing.”
It’s no surprise, then, that the Dalai Lama says, “The purpose of life is to be happy.”
Our capacity to care for others and serve the world in a meaningful way depends largely on our inner state. Happiness is like the rich soil at the root of a tree that awakens beauty and strength.
While I’m no Dalai Lama, I’ve seen firsthand what happens when I prioritize happiness – and when I don’t.
With replenished inner resources, I can respond to the challenges of parenting, teaching and living with greater patience, wisdom, and wholeheartedness. For example:
- When my 2-year old throws a tantrum, I see it as normal and temporary, and I show up with patience and understanding.
- When traffic unexpectedly causes me to run late, I see it for what it is rather than getting sucked into the story about “how horrible everyone drives.”
- When someone makes a disrespectful comment, I don’t take it personal. I know the other person must be hurting, and I can offer forgiveness and compassion.
On the other hand, when I’m depleted, I’m far less grounded and aware of what others need from me. I’m also less capable of loving people as they are.
How about you, do you see a correlation between your happiness and others? How are you with your family when you feel happy? Do they seem more or less responsive to you? How about commuters on the freeway or clerks at the store, do you treat them differently when you’re in a good mood?
In contrast, how about when you’re in a sour mood? Do you get the feeling that others want to be around you? Are people at work or home more or less likely to go out of their way to help you?
Emotions are Contagious
As you look more closely at how your inner state impacts others, you may discover what the research confirms: Emotions are contagious. I say this not to make you feel horrible for the times you’ve been down in the dumps, but to help you see that prioritizing personal happiness is a promising pathway to serving others.
What does prioritizing happiness mean?
In short, committing to practices that: A) Buffer negative emotions, such as anxiety, frustration, and overwhelm, and B) Elevate positive emotions, such as joy, peace, and love.
It’s like anything you want to get better at. If you want to swim farther and faster, you need to practice swimming farther and faster. If you want to speak another language fluently, you need to practice speaking that language. And so it is with happiness. If you want to feel happier, you need to practice activities that inspire genuine happiness.
This doesn’t mean you should strive to be happy all the time. Just make a commitment to notice and manage how you feel in the same way you manage your to-do list. For example, when you’re on edge or gloomy, you could explore ways to work with those feelings, such as: 1) Practice self-compassion, 2) Pause to notice what, if anything, is good, 3) Let go of an unhelpful, irrelevant thought stream, or 4) Go out of your way to do something nice for someone.
An ongoing commitment to discovering what works for you is key. And since we’re in this world together, your personal happiness is a gift that keeps on giving.