HAPPINESS 3 of 5: You're doing happy all wrong
Hold onto your hats, because this post is going to get awfully counter-intuitive.
Let's start with this question: which do you think there are more of, stars in the Milky Way Galaxy or trees on Earth?
I would say stars. I've seen the Milky Way through a telescope, and it is so densely packed with stars it looks like piece of tissue paper. On the other hand, human beings have spent millennia cutting down trees and creating vast deserts so that deforestation is an ecological and climatic crisis. It seems pretty clear which is bigger.
Except that it's not.
There are more trees on earth than stars in the Milky Way, and it's not even close. There are a thousand times more trees on earth than stars in the galaxy. (3 billion stars, 4 trillion trees.)
Just because something seems true, doesn't mean it is. We can't just go by what we think, we need to actually measure things. How many stars are there really, and how many trees? We can't just think about the trees that are cut down, we have to count the ones that are still standing if we want to get the right answer.
The same goes for personal happiness. The world tells us the recipe for happiness is to get treated the right way. It tells us we need to prioritize self-care, stand up for ourselves, demand respect, love ourselves, surround ourselves with supportive people.
These things all make sense. After all, if happiness is something an individual person feels, then it should be achieved by focusing on and taking care of that individual person so she can feel happy. It seems clear.
And yet, when we actually count, when we actually measure, when we run studies to test approaches against each other, that is not what we find. It turns out that human beings get happier when they do things for other people than when they do things for themselves.
For example, researchers studied people who had become widowed after a long marriage. You'd think that the ones who coped the best would be the ones who had the strongest support system and the greatest degree of help from others.
The ones who spent the most time supporting others coped the best, no matter what kind of support system they had for themselves. And a brain imaging study found that giving support to a loved one reduced signs of stress and fear in the brain.
They have found that very young children feel happier after they have given something away to help someone else, and that people who volunteer regularly have a lower mortality risk. People who spend time helping others are less likely to feel like they don't have "enough" free time in their lives, and more generous people have better life outcomes (including making more money) than stingier people.
Time after time, research shows that we thrive not when we devote ourselves to self-care, but when we devote ourselves to others.
It may seem counterintuitive, but that doesn't make it any less true. There are more trees in our world than we ever imagined, and more to be gained by turning our efforts toward others than we could ever have dreamed.