Number 6: Find Happiness Through Selflessness, Charity, Compassion and Forgiveness

Photo(c)Brian Jackson/

Photo(c)Brian Jackson/

Humans are social by nature, and our mind-bodies have evolved in such a way that when we help each other we become happier. It is in our nature to build secure relationships with each other. One of the most important ways of connecting with others, even perfect strangers, is to focus on their needs. As we feel more connected, and as we act in ways that help build and maintain secure relationships, we become happier. The four main ways we focus on the needs of others are by practicing selflessness, charity, compassion and forgiveness.

The four main ways we focus on the needs of others are by practicing selflessness, charity, compassion and forgiveness.

Relationship with others is critical to your ability to be happy. When your relationships are not secure, you can feel the emotional pain of loneliness. Loneliness is so painful that we use it as a punishment for prisoners, when we force them into solitary confinement. Reaching out to others, focusing on their needs, and connecting with them helps turn loneliness into happiness.

If you are not doing the kinds of things that secure and maintain relationships, some part of your mind-body knows this, and unhappiness can result. On the other hand, focusing on others tells the mind-body that you are doing what it wants you to do, and what you were born to do, which is to connect with other people.

Not only does focusing on others play to our evolutionary desire to build relationships, it moves the focus away from self. Any time you focus on your own needs and your own desires, you strengthen that part of your mind-body that falsely believes you can only be happy if you attain your personal desires. To be truly happy, you have to let go of this belief, and learn to experience the happiness that is already inside of you. If you focus on the needs and desires of others, you turn the attention away from yourself, and weaken the hold that your desires have on your ability to be happy.

Let’s talk about how we turn the focus away from ourselves and towards others, through the practices of selflessness, charity, compassion and forgiveness.

Selflessness refers to selfless acts and states of mind that are motivated by what others want and need. When the welfare of others is important to you, you are building bridges to them. People always feel good about helping others who are in need, or who just require a little assistance and guidance. Humans are built to feel good when they do this. Ironically, when you are doing something for someone else, with no thought for your personal gain, that is often when you can be happiest.

Closely associated with selflessness is charity. True charity is giving to others or doing for others without expecting or even desiring anything in return — not even a thank-you. Sometimes we talk about such charity as “feeding others.” This can be literal feeding, such as working in a community kitchen, or it can be feeding in other ways. Reading to a blind person in a nursing home, for example, is another kind of feeding. As we evolved to be social beings, concerned as much for our “tribe” as for ourselves, it is in our nature to be charitable, and we feel good doing so.

True charity also diminishes the importance of “things” in our lives. If giving to others is more important than having things for yourself, these things have less hold on you. Your happiness does not depend so much on obtaining things, and you make room in your life for true happiness, which does not come from having things.

Compassion is a deep sense of caring about others. The Dalai Lama has said, “As long as we are human beings, and members of human society, we need human compassion. Without that, you cannot be happy.” [1]   Compassion is based on respect for others. It depends on realizing that they have the same right to happiness as you. Real compassion is also unbiased — the closeness and caring of real compassion should be the same for enemies as for friends.

The idea of compassion speaks once again to our genetic make-up. It is deeply ingrained in us to care as much for others as for ourselves. Indeed, under some circumstances we care more about others, sometimes requiring us to sacrifice our lives for the larger community. Therefore, to act compassionately is to be what our evolutionary past has created us to be.

Compassion is also the recognition that the self with which you identify is not different from the selves of other people. We are all connected on some fundamental level. As you begin to pay less attention to your own needs and more to the needs of others, you may see that your sense of separateness is an illusion.

Forgiveness is perhaps the hardest of the practices I talk about here. If someone has harmed you, it is natural to feel pain and to react with anger. The desire to hurt the person is understandable and justified. As you forgive someone who has harmed you, you give up the desire for vengeance, and the desire for that person to suffer. Do you want to be happier right now? Just forgive someone who has harmed you. This can make you happier immediately.

The Buddha said that holding anger in your heart is like picking up a burning ember to throw at someone. You burn yourself before you hurt the other person. Anger is an emotion that is harmful to everyone, especially the person who carries the anger. For one who strives for happiness, the only logical response to a hurt from another is forgiveness. Stop torturing yourself! Forgive the person who has harmed you and make yourself happier. You do not necessarily have to go to the person to do it. It is the anger in your heart you want to get rid of.

Forgive the person who has harmed you and make yourself happier.

What to do

Practicing selflessness, charity, compassion and forgiveness will make you happier. — it is as simple as that. These practices are both easy and difficult to do. They are easy because they are things we all know how to do. They are difficult because we often do not want to do them.

Charity usually comes easily for us. It is not difficult to do a kindness for a friend or even a stranger. Being selfless, compassionate, and forgiving are more difficult, because they require more tolerance and acceptance of others than may be comfortable. Still, these practices are all possible, and the benefits in happiness can be huge.

Here is an exercise in compassion:

With your eyes closed, picture in your mind someone you know and love. Then ask for happiness, peace, contentment, health and safety for that person. Use whatever words you wish, such as “I wish happiness for (the person); I wish peace and contentment for (the person); I wish health and safety for (the person).” Say these things to yourself, silently or out loud.

Then, say these same words for someone with whom you have a troubled relationship.

Say these words for someone who has harmed you.

Say these words for anyone else who may need your compassion.

Finally, say these same words for yourself. That is, ask compassion for yourself.

While saying these words, reach out with your feelings of compassion, whether it is for yourself or someone else.

As you express your compassion for another or for yourself, you tap into our natural desire for human relationship and closeness. This triggers happiness in you. You also turn your focus away from yourself and towards others, which also increases happiness.

Here is an exercise in forgiveness:

With your eyes closed, bring to mind someone who has harmed you. Perhaps this is someone you think should be punished for what he or she did. Think about what the person did, and how you feel about the person. With these thoughts in mind, and only to the extent you feel comfortable doing so, say to this person, “I forgive you for (say the thing he or she did).”

This forgiveness exercise seems simple, but it is not. When you speak the words, you should try to dig deeply into your emotions and find the will to genuinely forgive the person. You may have to do this exercise many times; each time uncovering layers of resentment within yourself and forgiving the person a little more each time.

If you cannot forgive, don’t worry about it. Don’t beat yourself up about it. Even the thought that you would like to forgive is a step forward and can actually make you feel a little lighter and a little happier.

As you do this exercise with a sincere will to forgive, you can become happier. As with the compassion exercise, you are tapping into our natural desire for a secure relationship, and you are taking the focus away from yourself.


Posted by D.E. Hardesty

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For more, see Finding Your Power to Be Happy.

finding your power to be happy

[1] Compassion, the Basis for Human Happiness, a Public talk given by His Holiness the Dalai Lama in the Free Trade Hall, Manchester, UK 19th July 1996.

One thought on “Number 6: Find Happiness Through Selflessness, Charity, Compassion and Forgiveness

  1. Pingback: Number 6: Find Happiness Through Selflessness, Charity, Compassion and Forgiveness | How to Be Happy

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