Let’s do a thought experiment. Here are two scenarios. Imagine yourself in each scenario. Which one do you think is more likely to make you feel happy?
You and two of your friends arrive late to a party. You are all three tired and hungry, after a hard workout at the gym. You get to the food table before your friends and see that all the food is gone but for two, small slices of pizza. You’re starving! You quickly grab them up, take them outside, and bolt them down before your friends notice.
You and two of your friends arrive late to a party. You are all three tired and hungry, after a hard workout at the gym. You get to the food table before your friends and see that all the food is gone but for two, small slices of pizza. You’re starving! You quickly grab them up and carry them to your friends. You say, “Hey guys, this is the only food left. Want to share it with me?”
So, which one is more likely to generate feelings of happiness?
So what will in general make people happier? Temporarily diminishing physical discomfort or doing something nice for someone else?
It turns out that altruism—doing good things for other people without the expectation of personal gain—will make you happy. When compared to pleasurable activities, altruistic behavior creates a longer-lasting boost in mood.
Thus, in our thought experiment, even though you will feel less hungry in scenario 1, you will probably feel happier in scenario 2, because you are doing something nice for someone else. You are acting with generosity.
Competing needs: greediness vs. generosity
At the same time, we have also evolved to survive in social groups. Our very survival depended on being able to get along with others so we didn’t get kicked out of the cave. Thus qualities such as fairness, loyalty and generosity are also part of our instinctual behaviors.
Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, “What are you doing for others?”
If you want to try to diminish the natural tendency towards greediness and enhance the natural tendency towards generosity, you have to be mindful of your behaviors and feelings.
You will be reinforced for your kind and generous acts each time you notice clearly the warm, fuzzy feelings they spawn. Thus, if you are really paying attention to how you feel, over time you will be more likely to act generously.
Since this is a blog on mindfulness, it will come as no surprise to you when I tell you that mindfulness practice has been shown to increase kind and generous behavior significantly.
The straight path to generosity? Mindfulness, of course.
Scientists at Northeastern University constructed a clever study to find out whether or not meditation actually leads to kind or generous behavior.
Here’s how the study worked:
First, they taught half of their study subjects to do mindfulness meditation. Then, they sent each subject to an appointment, where they had to wait to be seen.
The waiting room was set up with three chairs, with two actors already seated when the subject arrived, forcing the subject to sit in the only remaining chair. A few minutes later, a third actor entered the room on crutches and in obvious pain. The two already-seated actors conspicuously ignored the suffering person.
Would the subjects who had learned the mindfulness meditation practice respond generously by offering their chair to the suffering person more frequently than those who had not learned mindfulness?
Turns out the meditators were much more likely to respond with compassionate generosity, proving to be more than 500% more likely to give up their chairs than the non-meditators.
Were the students who had learn mindfulness more aware of the suffering or just more bothered by it? It’s not really clear and I suppose it doesn’t really matter. Either way, the meditators’ behavior was significantly more kind and generous.
One of the authors, David DeSteno, said this about the study:
“The truly surprising aspect of this finding is that meditation made people willing to act virtuous – to help another who was suffering – even in the face of a norm not to do so. The fact that the other actors were ignoring the pain creates a ‘bystander-effect’ that normally tends to reduce helping.”
You can’t force a feeling, but you can shift behaviors
Acting with kindness and generosity goes a long way towards cultivating happiness. But remember, you can’t force yourself to naturally feel generous in every situation, and there’s no point judging yourself for not feeling the way you think you should.
Oh, and there is another side benefit to generous behavior as well. Not only will you be happier, but the folks you share the pizza with are going to be happier as well. And next time they have a chance to help you out, they will be more likely to do so. As the saying goes, “What goes around, comes around.”
Try it! Do one, unexpected good deed.
Try this: Today, before you sleep, do without any expectation of gain, one good deed for someone else. Tomorrow do the same. Notice how that behavior impacts your mood state and your day. If it seems useful, you could make a commitment to doing an act of kindness daily.
Tell us in the comments section below what you notice .
Excerpted in part from The Mindful Twenty-Something.