Can happiness be shared?

“I cook because I want to make others happy” says this ideal girl from a Japanese cartoon. I suppose this is more or less why I write as well, it certainly does not pay my bills.  But do people actually become happy when you do something for them, or is it the one who does something for others who becomes happy?  Both? Depends?

“Can happiness be shared?” sounds like a crazy question, but I do not mean to ask whether two (or more) people can be happy together. Rather, my question is more like “can a happy person give away some of his happiness to others?”

This is not a completely theoretical question for me. I am actually quite happy most of the time, pretty much except when I am sick and getting sicker, or when I have just made a mistake. On the other hand there are many unhappy people in the world, and a few of them are my friends. There are probably many more who are not exactly unhappy, certainly not to the point of complaining about it, but who feel empty and dissatisfied or frequently experience boredom in their everyday life. Could I transfer some happiness to those who need it more?

This seems easy enough if you believe that happiness is a matter of money. Simply give them money, and they will be happier than before they got it. Certainly this seems to be the assumption of most of the world’s governments, and it is not entirely pulled out of Marx’ behind. At a low level of income, where you cannot afford life’s necessities, money makes a huge difference. So if some people have plenty of money and others are starving, it makes a certain sense to steal from the rich and give to the poor, at least if you can somehow convince the rich to continue collecting riches that you can steal. This is a pretty big part of the “art of politics” in our time, but the time for this is probably about to end, because people are gradually realizing that happiness is not quite that simple.

There is a whole new “economics of happiness” being crafted now, based on studies of large numbers of people. For instance, happiness for men is strongly tied to marriage, and somewhat less to employment. For a man, in terms of happiness, a wife is worth years of hard work. This should not really come as a surprise to anyone, I guess. Now as we are moving toward economics of happiness, imagine the chaos if the state were to try to ensure maximum happiness in this regard. Especially since there is no such strong link for women. (Actually, it is totally possible that women marry happy men and avoid the unhappy ones – the statistics would look the same without a control group forced to marry at the behest of the scientists. Let us hope we’ll never know, then.)

Others look at what kind of people are happy. They find that those who do something for others, without getting paid for it, tend to be radically more happy than those who don’t. Again, this is rather old news: “It is more blessed to give than to receive”, as was said almost 2000 year ago. But there is also the possibility that happy people are more likely to volunteer than their depressed brethren, and again the only way to find out for sure is to try it for yourself and see if you feel happier.

So, it would seem that happiness is a bit like stamina: There may be a genetic component, but if you are even vaguely healthy, you can improve it by doing certain things that may seem unpleasant at first. Happiness exercises, in this case. But if that is so, we cannot send other people our happiness, or at least not to a great extent. They will have to grow their own happiness by walking the path that leads to it.

The truth is probably that you can do both: Give a man a fish, and he has food for the day. Teach a man to fish, and he has food for a lifetime.


EDIT to add:  Since some may not be familiar with the research, I will point you to this little BBC article on happiness which drops some names that are useful for your further Googling. In particular I am thinking of Professor Oswald on the economy of happiness (he assigns price tags to various things not buyable, so as to compare them) and Martin Seligman on how to live a happy life individually.

Blessed are the lower middle class


You could for instance get a chess board and have years of fun with that. Or get Sims 2 and have years of fun with that, I guess.

“Lower middle class”? Actually, the founder of Christianity famously says, “Blessed are the poor”, but it’s not like anyone would believe that. I mean, if they don’t believe Jesus, why would they believe me? Actually, I am not sure about it myself in the most literal sense of poverty. Today’s headline, however, I’m pretty sure of. From personal experience, actually, but I hope I can also argue a bit more broadly.

First, affluence is relative. You may be just above the poverty line today, but by the standards of a hundred years ago you would be privileged indeed, and that’s before we factor in all the stuff that did not even exist back then, from antibiotics to the Internet. And even today, the lower middle class in Europe or America is rolling in dough as seen from parts of the developing world. The reason why people are still frustrated is largely that they compare themselves to the rich. This is no surprise, since the rich get a lot of media coverage.

Actually, that was my point number two, and possibly the most important. A lot of suffering comes from envy. Often it is not so much the money we want, but the status. This is an unfortunate side effect of how the primate brain works. It was made to function in small packs or tribes, where your status within the group was essential for at least two reasons. One, if food became scarce, the alphas would get to eat first. If your status was too low when the dry season set in, you could face starvation. In that case you would probably not pass on your genes and become my ancestor. Two, mating rights! For males, this would often manifest in quantity (and still does, just ask football or rock stars), for females in quality. So we inherited both the genes and the culture of those who kept reasonably close to the top of the pack.

Luckily, the food supply is no longer a problem except in the poorest countries. (Actually, too much food is more of a problem.) And even mating rights are not what they once were. People have a lot less kids anyway, and the kids tend to survive even if they are not able to wrestle cave bears at the age of twelve. If you really are obsessed with spreading your genes, you should probably raise your kids as deeply religious in an old-fashioned faith. It is certainly far more effective than having sex with pro wrestlers.

My point is, the motivations for staying on top are no longer valid. In fact, to the outside observer it looks quite a bit like the old farmer who tried to give his tractor hay. What was a perfectly rational behavior in the past can be perfectly crazy in a new and different age.

So what are you supposed to do instead of chasing status? Basically, become happy. There is a young science of happiness, which you may want to read up on. But basically it boils down to this: Don’t stress. Don’t expect any particular event (like a promotion or even a marriage) to create lasting happiness. Forgive people. Spend some time regularly helping others who are less fortunate than you. Do this and you should already be a long way toward lasting happiness.

I will also mention creativity. Whether you believe humans were literally created in the image of a Creator, or that the emergence of creativity marked our transition to true humans from merely smart apes, it should be something to celebrate. Given that we don’t actually need to impress anyone (status, remember?), why not find some way to express your creativity and go for it shamelessly? Drawing, painting, writing fiction or poetry, perhaps even some kind of craft. There are many activities that are not expensive at all, but can give you as much enjoyment as you pour time into them.

Whereas I personally see creativity as a subdomain of spirit, I also recommend taking up a spiritual practice such as meditation and/or prayer or chanting if you are religious. You may already have thought of meditation under the “don’t stress” part, but it is more than that. It is a chance to get hands-on experience with spirit, whatever that is. Your ideas about spirituality and religion may have been formed by more or less random events: By your parents, teachers, high school crush, things you saw on TV. You then pick up support for what you already want to believe from obvious sources, but how much experience do you have personally?

Timelessness takes time, as Robert Godwin so often says. In this at least there is no doubt he is right, as anyone can find out for themselves. You may find a crack in the cosmic egg, but then comes the laborious process of widening it. You may find a wellspring of grace, but then you dig deeper. You may find a stream of consciousness, but then you try to follow it towards its nonlocal source. Contrary to popular belief, life really is short. Eternity is long. Finding a piece of eternity in time is an extreme treasure.

Don’t get me wrong: You should definitely feed and clothe your kids rather than leave them behind while you run off to India to chant “Hare Rama” in an ashram. But there is no need to keep up with the neighbors. The neighbors are probably trapped in the knuckledragging Ice Age mentality anyway; it is no surprise then if they are better at dragging knuckles than you are.

Before you choose a path that promises lots of money but leaves you no time to help others or find your own still center, please give happiness a chance! If you don’t like happiness, you can try more money later.