Posted in Life & Happiness

Recipe For Happiness: Compassion

(This is a three part mini-series on happiness. See the full series here:

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.

Posted in Life & Happiness

Recipe For Happiness: Mindfulness

(This is a three part mini-series on happiness. See the full series here:

Mindfulness is the state of mind where you are aware of and attentive to the present, accepting it while not being judgemental. Simply put, it is “living in the moment”. It may sound easy, but in reality, we are not very skilled at sustaining attention to the present. We are easily distracted by regrets of the past or fears for the future. Even when we are aware of the present, we judge constantly. Thoughts such as “I can’t believe I said that, it’s so stupid” or “This person is annoying me so much, I hate it” are some examples.

When we are mindful, we can look into our brains and isolate what is really bothering us. Instead of being trapped within a maze of neurosis, you can look at your emotional response rationally. This allows you to try figuring out what is causing it and how you might fix it.


For example, you might feel angry when your friend does not reply to your messages. Our default state is to feel angry and lash out at our friend. But from a mindful state, you might see that your anger stems from your belief that your friend does not care about you. Then, you might remember that your friend is very busy studying for an exam and realise that there was a fair reason for them not replying. By being mindful, you self-aborted the vicious cycle of negative emotions and prevented the unhappiness it could cause.

There have been numerous studies that have shown the benefits of mindfulness. Not only does it reduce stress and increase happiness, but it also improves your physical health. But unfortunately, mindfulness takes practice to develop.

Mindfulness is trained through meditation. During meditation, you enter a relaxed state where you can focus on your “mind’s eye” rather than worldly distractions. There are numerous types of exercises that are available, such as breathing exercises and guided meditation.

A mindfulness exercise you can try right now is the Five Senses Meditation.
First, focus on what you are seeing right now. Describe everything in detail: the pigeon flying away, the red-headed girl handing out pamphlets, the blue sky. Ignore your emotional response to what you see and focus only on what you actually see. Now, close your eyes and focus only on your hearing. Do you hear the twittering of birds, the chatter amongst people, the leaves rustling in the wind? Keep doing this one-by-one with your other senses: touch, smell and taste. With each sense, focus only on what you “see” through that sense, blocking out everything else. Focus on the feeling of your clothes on your body, the scent of the person sitting next to you, the aftertaste of the breakfast you just ate. Lastly, open your eyes.

You will now be able to see the little details of the moment you’re in, through heightened senses. Then you will realise that you exist in this moment. Not in the past or the future, but in the present that your senses are excitedly telling you about.
The key to happiness is not an epic quest to find the Holy Grail. All you need to do is pay attention and look around you.

Happiness is now.

Posted in Life & Happiness

Recipe For Happiness: Gratitude

(This is a three part mini-series on happiness. See the full series here:

Dr Tony Fernando, psychiatrist and researcher at the University of Auckland, talks about three factors that appear to be key to living a happy, content life. They are gratitude, mindfulness and compassion.

Gratitude can be summarised by a quote by Rabbi Hyman Schachtel:

Happiness is not having what you want, but wanting what you have”.

We live in a society that drives us to want more – to become wealthier, more respected and more successful. Our never-ending desires are a great source of unhappiness. Gratitude is the attempt to fight this natural greed. This makes it difficult for us to become grateful: how can we be grateful when we feel miserable?

The key to gratitude is changing your perspective. A large part of our misery come from looking at the big picture. Houses are too expensive. My friends are all getting married but I am still single. I find my job dissatisfying. We sometimes lack the ability to see the forest for the trees; our idea of happiness are grand moments of success or excitement. Instead, perhaps we should be looking at the simple pleasures of life. Think of the little moments that made you smile today: meeting a friend for brunch, seeing a child play with a puppy, drinking a delicious milkshake, basking under the warm sunlight.

To become more grateful, one could try writing a gratitude diary. Every day, write down three (or even just one if it is too hard) things you were grateful that day. This trains you into actively thinking about simple pleasures. It may take a few weeks, but you will notice yourself becoming more aware of the little moments of happiness that fill your day that you took for granted. Eventually, you will reach a point where you are passively grateful throughout every day without having to think about it all times.

Recording a gratitude diary is one of the quickest and simplest ways to increase your happiness, with most people seeing noticeable positive effects within 1-2 months. The best part is that you leave a permanent record that you can look back on to realise how happy your life actually is when you see the forest for the trees.