“There are very, very, very many people in the world today who will not have had the kind of breakfast that you had. Many, many millions in the world today are hungry. It’s not your fault, but you woke up in a warm bed, you were able to have a shower, you put on clean clothes, and you are in a home that is warm in the winter.” - The Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu, The Book of Joy
Puts things into perspective pretty quickly, doesn’t it? When I returned from Southeast Asia last year, everything was a blessing. The amount I wanted or “needed” diminished immensely; I was grateful simply to have been born in a country where 3 meals a day and functional plumbing were conveniences we could afford to take for granted. But - not unexpectedly - over time this newfound sense of perspective faded, and keeping up with those around me started to take hold once again.
Why, if getting outside of ourselves can so significantly affect our happiness, do we so often fail to do so? The short answer is: ego. More often than not we navigate life on autopilot, allowing the ego’s blinders to narrow our vision and distort the scale of our so-called problems. Stepping out of it allows us to find extraordinary joy, fulfillment, and connection - often to some of the greatest degrees we will ever experience - but it takes work, intention and practice. Let’s look at how.
Feeling Good By Doing Good
“Taking care of others, helping others, ultimately is the way to discover your own joy and to have a happy life. That is what I call wise selfishness.” - The Dalai Lama
One of the ongoing debates among psychologists today as it relates to empathy and altruistic behavior is: Is there such thing as “pure” altruism, or do we always act in a way to ultimately benefit ourselves? Think about it: when you toss your change to someone on the street, is it ultimately to lessen your sense of guilt, sadness or discomfort? When you volunteer for a cause, is it ultimately to cultivate a certain sense of identity or meaning, or feel connected to a higher purpose or principle?
Personal benefit doesn’t make altruistic acts among soldiers who choose to go to war, political activists who risk their own freedoms to speak out, or parents who sacrifice for their children any less heroic. However, it is interesting to dig more deeply into the various motivations that drive people to act on behalf of others at all. The simple fact that people choose to do so offers evidence that there is something powerful behind it, and so we might ask: Is getting something out of helping others - whether intentional or not - necessarily a bad thing? Would there be more net good in the world if we accepted and actively leveraged this understanding? By studying prosocial behavior we learn how we can increase our own happiness through doing good for others, and ultimately how we can elicit more of it.
“If you look at what you have in life, you’ll always have more. If you look at what you don’t have in life, you’ll never have enough.” - Oprah Winfrey
It’s been said that when you’re sad, it’s “time to go help someone.” Without generalizing to all circumstances, more often that not - as a Buddhist might say - the source of our suffering is our ego. But one of the quickest ways out? Redirect the attention to someone else. The Dalai Lama shares a great story in The Book of Joy where he is being rushed to the hospital for intense pains in his gallbladder. Over his two hour drive to the hospital, he passes through desperately impoverished parts of India. A lone man lying on the ground that looks as though he is dying catches and possesses his attention for the rest of the trip. It is then that the Dalai Lama notices that in being so concerned about the other man’s pain, he has completely forgotten his own. While it won’t replace the need for doctors in treating your gallbladder, I find the story a beautiful example of how simply focusing on others can significantly lessen suffering - even, quite literally, on a physical level.
So, while it was brought up so many times in our class it almost began to sound trite, practicing compassion and acts of kindness are one of the most powerful yet significantly underutilized evidence-based ways in which you can increase happiness. Not only do they help us first and foremost to get outside of ourselves, but they also more often than not expand our perspectives. While our default is typically to make upward comparisons (i.e. keeping up with the Joneses) because those are the contexts in which we are immersed daily, doing good for others puts us in contexts that remind us of what we already have to be grateful for more frequently. Just like getting outside ourselves takes practice, getting ourselves outside our own, comfy little bubbles takes just as much intentionality.
Cultivating Empathy Through Perspective Taking
“While nothing is easier than to denounce the evildoer, nothing is more difficult than to understand him.” - Fyodor Dostoevsky
I couldn’t think of a more important topic in light of today’s cultural and political climate than finding empathy and compassion for those beyond our immediate ethnic, political, and socioeconomic groups, and how doing so can bring us a much more profound sense of happiness and connection.
According to developmental psychologists, we start to develop “theory of mind” - or the ability to understand that others’ thoughts, beliefs and emotions are different from our own - around the age of 4. While we might not always utilize it in the heat of a conflict with our manager or significant other, the vast majority of us do indeed have the ability to put our own perspective aside, and “step into the shoes” of someone else’s experience to understand what they might be both thinking and experiencing. As humans, we also have the ability to experience “empathy,” who some define as not just the ability to cognitively understand another’s feelings, but to also literally feel with them.
However, throughout history - from Nazi Germany to what’s happening down at the US-Mexico border today - we have witnessed examples time and time again of the incredible tragedy that ensues when we choose not to see or understand those on the other side of us. When instead, we see them as “other” rather than attempt to identify with them.
I was particularly struck by this idea recently watching Us... (Spoiler alert! Go see it now!)
In literature and psychology, there is this idea of the “uncanny” - something that is eerie yet strangely familiar, and it is the familiarity that makes it so unsettling. A commentary on poverty and the “shadow” underbelly of America, what initially makes Us so chilling is the fact that the shadow family is so closely connected to the protagonists. We watch as their same faces stare directly back at them - underlining the idea that under different circumstances, or dealt a slightly different deck, they could all too easily be in their place. But what makes the movie even more interesting is that there are still two sides to this coin - to identifying with another. You see, as the movie progresses, I’d argue that we experience less and less empathy for the Tethered. Under Peele’s direction, they remain brutish and strikingly less-than-human, and garish murder scenes are sliced with comic relief to keep us from ever stopping to feel too bad. But what type of “thought provoking” movie doesn’t encourage us to empathize with the disadvantaged and disenfranchised underdogs of the film? Peele ultimately comments that “The protagonist in the movie is a surrogate for the audience...we have been the bad guy.” And it’s true, throughout the movie we are set up to be on the protagonists’ side, and regardless of who you believe that is in the final scene, you as the audience are consistently fighting alongside Adelaide to keep the status quo. You see, when we experience too much identification, we start to see how vulnerable we actually are to having been or even becoming that which we fear most. So throughout history, our natural defense has been to disidentify - to make those around us the “other” and avoid such empathy and cognitive dissonance. It happens every day with people in poverty, inner cities, war zones, and at the border. It happens every time you say “men are from Mars and women are from Venus” or that the political party that doesn’t agree with you is just made up of a bunch of jerks.
“No one puts their child in a boat unless the water is safer than the land.” - Warsan Shire
So what can we do about it? To start, we can practice perspective taking. Stepping out of our own heads long enough to understand the history, experiences, feelings and perspective of the other side. Intentionally practicing empathy and compassion for those other than ourselves. If we all managed to do this for 10 seconds before falling back on our assumptions and comfortable narratives, the world might look a lot different.
Ubuntu: We Are All Connected
“We are part of the same humanity. When humanity is happy, we will be happy.” - Desmond Tutu
Empathy, compassion and taking the perspectives of others allow us to connect on significantly deeper levels, and help us to realize that our experiences are not so different - or even separate - for that matter. In my itty bitty quest for the “meaning of life,” I came across the same concept in so many shapes, sizes, and languages. One of them was ubuntu, as introduced to me by Archbishop of South Africa Desmond Tutu (yes, also in The Book of Joy - pick it up!). Ubuntu is an African concept for “humanity,” literally translating to “I am because we are.” Oftentimes we forget that there is not you without others. Without the coming together of your parents, your families nurturing and providing resources for years, your education, your community, and even the millions before you who built your home, your iPhone, stitched and sewed together your car and your clothes...We are an incredibly codependent humanity often under the facade that we are responsible for our own success and that it is a zero sum game.
The Archbishop goes on to explain that in African Villages, rather than asking “How are you?” people ask “How are we?” - understanding that others happiness and success are, too, our own.
People who meditate, do yoga, have spiritual experiences on psychedelics, or even come back from near-death experiences, all report similar feelings. Feelings of connection with the rest of humanity, or something greater. In her TED Talk, brain scientist Jill Bolte Taylor puts it most beautifully when she explains her experience in the middle of a stroke: “I look down at my arm and I can no longer define the boundaries of my body. I can’t define where I begin and where I end because the atoms and the molecules of my arm blended with the atoms and molecules of the wall. And all I could detect was this energy…I no longer perceived myself as a whole object separate from everything.”
I could write a whole book on the wondrous experiences I’ve explored in which people find a sense of universal connection and even transcendence (perhaps I’ll dedicate a future blog post), but for now I’ll leave it at the idea actively practicing compassion strengthens our ability to find and experience these very cherished and often ineffable moments. For those of you who are unfamiliar with it, or even for those who’ll benefit a return, I’ll leave you with a commonly used meditation to cultivate more compassion toward yourself and others. May you take more with you as you move on throughout your day.
Loving Kindness Meditation
Close your eyes. Begin to bring the attention to the breath. Take a few slow, deep inhales and exhales - counting in 4, holding for a beat, counting out 4, and holding for a beat.
When you are ready, start to summon a “benefactor” to mind. Someone you love and cherish deeply. Unconditionally. This can be a family member, it can even be a pet. Hold this person or object in your space for several breaths.
To them, begin to repeat:
May you be happy.
May you be healthy.
May you be at peace.
When you are ready to move on, start to meditate on and cultivate compassionate feelings toward yourself. Perhaps place a hand over the heart, on gently on the belly. If it helps, you may choose to imagine yourself as a child.
Repeat to yourself:
May I be happy.
May I be healthy.
May I be at peace.
Next, bring a neutral person to mind. Perhaps a neighbor, a store manager, or someone who made a brief appearance in your life today.
May you be happy.
May you be healthy.
May you be at peace.
We will now move on to a difficult person in your life. This could be someone close to you, or even someone, or something more symbolic. It is ok if this feels a bit challenging. Breath deeply into it, and just see what you offer today.
To this person, begin to repeat:
May you be happy.
May you be healthy.
May you be at peace.
Finally, we’ll expand our meditation outward. You may choose to take extra time to start with those around you and slowly to expand out. You may choose to take time to focus on specific groups, such as the sick, the oppressed, or even plants and animals.
Allow whatever comes up to fill your heart and begin to repeat:
May all beings be happy.
May all beings be healthy.
May all beings be at peace.
*There are many versions and adaptations of the above lovingkindness / metta meditation you are welcome to explore. One of my other favorite practices is to meditate on the people and things I am grateful for. I will go through 108 mala beads thinking of one for each. Even as people or circumstances come to mind that are frustrating, I find that the gratitude and compassion I have built through the previous beads often spills over and allows me to approach more kindly and lovingly.