It’s not in chasing happiness that we find it, but by practising gratitude and compassion, that makes us feel deeply connected and fulfilled, and that is what really makes us happy.
Compassion: The other key ingredient
A lot is said these days about the power of gratitude. And rightly so – practising gratitude for the good things we already have in our lives creates a powerful foundation for happiness. However, according to Dr Amit Sood, a Professor of Medicine from the famous Mayo Clinic, if you want to really turbo-power your happiness, then gratitude is only part of the story.
The other key ingredient is compassion.
While empathy is the ability to put yourself in another person’s shoes – to understand their situation and share their feelings – compassion is the concern and pity for their plight. It’s the ability to feel their pain, and to want to soothe it – just as you would want to soothe that pain if it were your own.
Compassion and gratitude work synergistically. When they are combined, they can feed into and support each other in a way that boosts the power of both.
If we are compassionate towards others, it can help us to have a greater appreciation and gratitude for our own blessings in life. For instance, when we empathise with someone who is sick, it helps us to appreciate the great blessing of our own health. And if we have a strong sense of appreciation and gratitude in our own life, it can in turn help us to have a greater capacity for empathy and compassion towards others because a strong gratitude practice puts us in a mental position of resiliency that can fortify our ability to empathise.
A very happy brain
Dr Sood says, based on research findings about the brain: “Because of the way that your brain operates, the pursuit of gratitude and compassion will make you happier than the pursuit of happiness.”
Wow. That is quite an insight. And frankly, it explains a lot!
So many of us are pursuing happiness, and yet it remains elusive. Why is that? Often the things that we think are going to make us happy, actually don’t. Or, they give us a temporary boost of happiness, but then the effect wears off quickly.
It’s like we have a set point, or baseline, of happiness and we keep returning to it. This is actually a theory about happiness, called the ‘set point theory’, which has been supported by psychological studies.
Our happiness set point is often determined by the happiness we experienced (or didn’t experience) growing up. It is affected by both our environment and inherited genetic factors. It can also be affected by traumatic events at any time in life.
So what if we want to increase our happiness set point? How do we do that?
Dr Sood’s insight shows that the quickest way to greater happiness is not by chasing happiness itself. He says it is instead by cultivating and actively practising gratitude and compassion in our lives.
The Hugging Saint
The person who has taught me the most about the immense power of compassion in cultivating happiness, is a remarkable spiritual teacher named Amma.
Amma is best described by what she does. Amma is a 63-year-old Indian woman who has travelled the world for the past 30 years hugging people. Yes, that’s right, hugging! She is sometimes known as the Hugging Saint.
Amma’s unique gift is to personally hug everyone who comes to see her. No matter who comes to her (and they have, in the millions)…no matter their race, religion, gender, age, or affiliation… all are embraced equally in a powerful display of oneness with humanity.
It’s such a simple, powerful (and even in some ways, radical) act.
Amma often comments:, “In today’s world, there are many who are willing to die for their religion, but no one is willing to live according to their religion’s principles.”
For me, when I first met and was embraced by Amma, I felt like I was held in a sphere of total and complete love. The power of that unblemished acceptance of my being brought me to tears. I’d never felt such unconditional love emanating from anyone before, not even my own mother. It left me speechless.
It’s estimated that Amma has now hugged over 35 million people worldwide. She reportedly regularly spends over 18 hours a day hugging, and sometimes hugging in excess of 20,000 people in a single session.
As far as incredible displays of compassion go, that’s pretty amazing. Imagine the physical strain of spending 18 hours straight, without taking a break, embracing over 20,000 strangers, nearly every day of your life. Amma does this and yet she is almost always smiling and laughing as if there is nothing in the world she’d rather be doing. I guess there is nothing she’d rather be doing, because she’s been at it for over 30 years and shows no sign of letting up.
We might not all be capable of this level of compassion. However, the principle of reaching out to empathise and comfort others in any small way that we can, on a daily basis, is a great teaching. I can’t hug 20,000 people a day, but I can hug my friends and family. Or, I can smile and say kind words, even to people I don’t know. I can do my best to listen to people without judgement. I can try to understand their experience, and I can offer comfort and support (without necessarily trying to ‘fix’ them).
In my experience, these small things do lead to greater happiness in my life. I feel more connected to my brothers and sisters, and that makes me feel less alone. When I combine this with gratitude for the other blessings in my life, it’s even more powerful.
Here are some paradoxes I’ve come to understand about the pursuit of happiness:
- It’s not in constantly chasing the things that we think we want that leads to a sense of ‘enoughness’. It is rather the practise of gratitude for what we already have that makes our life feel full.
- It’s not seeking love and acceptance from others that makes us feel valued (and validated). It is instead by practising empathy and compassion for others that makes us feel truly connected.
- And, it’s not in chasing happiness that we find it, but by practising gratitude and compassion, making us feel deeply connected and fulfilled. That is what really makes us happy.