(This is a three part mini-series on happiness. See the full series here: https://jineralknowledge.com/tag/arkhappyrecipe/?order=asc)
Human beings are social creatures. It is extremely difficult to be happy when you are isolated and lonely. The most important lesson on happiness is that we are truly happiest when we connect with others.
Connection – physical, emotional or spiritual – is linked to the neurotransmitter oxytocin. It is released in large amounts when we feel loved, such as when a mother sees her newborn, when we hug or even when we feel nostalgia.
Happiness from connection is special in that it is sustainable. Happiness from excitement, such as through money, winning and sex, is mediated by dopamine and wears off very quickly. You need more and more “hits” of dopamine to feel the same again. Oxytocin, on the other hand, allows you to feel happy just from recalling memories of your connections.
So how can we use oxytocin to become happier? As mentioned above, it is released through human connection. The easiest way to do this is spending time with your loved ones – have a conversation, share a laugh, get to know each other on a deeper level.
But there is an even more effective way: compassion.
Because of our social nature, we have an innate desire to help those in need and alleviate suffering. But in modern society, we are so busy and consumed by our own lives that this instinct becomes dulled.
The first step to compassion is empathy. Through empathy, we can recognise and understand another person’s emotion. To do this, you have to practise the ability of seeing things from another person’s point of view. Consider how their values and experiences may influence how they behave and what they are feeling currently.
However, empathy alone does not create happiness. Compassion is when you recognise that someone is suffering and feel the desire to help alleviate it. Even the thought of wanting to help has been shown to induce happiness. When we show kindness and it makes even an iota of difference to the person’s suffering – such as putting a smile on their face – our brain instantly gets drowned in a sea of oxytocin and we genuinely feel good.
But as mentioned above, our sense of compassion has been worn away by the stress of daily life. Here is an exercise that can help train your compassion level.
Firstly, think of someone close to you who is suffering and wish them good fortune. The more often you do this, the easier the thoughts will come to you naturally.
Next, try doing the same to strangers. When you see someone on the streets or sit next to them on a bus, think to yourself: “I wish they would have a good day”. Even if you do not know who they are, you can wish them good fortune. They may not telepathically hear your thoughts, but the important part is training your compassion “muscle”.
The last step is the hardest. Think of your worst enemy, then wish them good fortune too. It is extremely difficult to respond to someone we hate with love. This is called uncomplementary behaviour in psychology and we are hardwired to do the opposite. Yet, when we do show kindness in the face of cruelty and hate, it can turn the situation upside-down and both parties can feel safer and happier.
The more you train your level of compassion, the more you will find that your interactions with others will be changing. You might find yourself smiling to strangers more, treating them with more kindness and feeling that the world is not that horrible a place after all. Most importantly, you might be able to show self-compassion, the most difficult task of all. Don’t be so hard on yourself; forgive your own mistakes and learn to love the awesome person that you are.
Be generous with your kindness. Every person in the world wants to be happy and a simple act of kindness from your end may shine some light on their day, and through empathy, you can feel happier also.