The biggest secret to happiness

Mr. Gustavo Páez, Principal of Fully Integrated International Programs at Western Australian International School System (WASS), shares one of the most fundamental values of humanity, which is “caring.” Thereby, he encourages WASSers to sow the seeds of happiness every day through small acts of kindness.

For this month I would like to share one of the most representative values as human beings, which is caring. Although there are many interpretations about it, its application from cultural, religious, social and traditionalist contexts are synonymous with identity. The interest in caring towards others is a reflection of who we are, how we were educated and what values we wish to leave as a legacy. Let us learn to be more caring for what happens around us, with full awareness of our own and others’ needs, and with a spirit of permanent devotion.

I would like to share some recommendations and steps to follow from the perspective of the organization “Pursuit of Happiness”: 

If I only had five seconds to talk about the biggest secret to becoming happier, I would include acts of kindness and compassion, and especially acts of kindness that are not planned or calculated, but come straight from the heart. Kindness can take many forms, from planned acts such as volunteering, to unplanned, spontaneous acts of generosity.

How do we know that kindness is key to happiness? Ancient wisdom and  modern science both tell us the same thing. Confucius once told his students, “There is one thread that strings together my teachings.” The thread that passed through the center of Confucius’ teachings was the Chinese concept of “shu,” the ability to put oneself in someone else’s shoes, and act upon it. I guess you could describe that habit as “thoughtful kindness,” or applied empathy. Kindness is the string that runs through the habits of happy people like a thread through a string of beads.

Science is now proving what Confucius tried to tell us 2,500 years ago. If you want to flourish, and be happy, be kind.  

There are many different ways we can express kindness and compassion. For the sake of simplicity, we can divide them into two kinds: planned acts of kindness such as volunteering, and unplanned, spontaneous acts of kindness. No matter which, the bottom line is that people who care for others on a regular basis are happier and less depressed.

1. Volunteering:

In the case of volunteering, scientists have found out that people feel happier with only one experience, but the people who experience the most benefit in terms of their mood were people who got involved in repeated activities, or what they call successive waves of volunteering. Considerable evidence exists that the mood boosting effects can last for months.  There has been a great deal of research on elderly people volunteering, and less on teenagers and youth. The surprising difference between the two age groups is that the elderly experience a more significant boost in well-being through volunteering. 

One of the main explanations for this boost in wellbeing is about motivation. The elderly mostly volunteer for the sake of volunteering, but in many cases young people volunteer for extrinsic reasons, that is, they are gently pressured to do so in various ways. For example, they are following the crowd or they are encouraged to volunteer by a parent, or they are mainly volunteering to polish up their resumes. We don’t know exactly why, but the benefits we obtain from volunteering depend on motivation. One likely reason is that the sense of control that people feel over their own lives, what psychologists call self-efficacy, is very important for happiness. If we feel that we’re in control, we are much happier than if we feel that our lives are being controlled by others.  

Participation by recipients is very important for their self-esteem. Volunteers often experience greater happiness but, in some cases, the people who are on the receiving end become more depressed. Why is that? It is mainly because they feel powerless, and that people are assisting them because they are powerless. We are talking about self-efficacy once again! Next time you go volunteering, try to get people involved in something that makes them feel that they are a part of the activity and not just the recipient. 

2. RAKs: Random Acts of Kindness:

The second way we can express compassion is through unplanned acts of kindness, the spontaneous, random kind. They have a surprisingly large impact on our well-being, and we can practice them more naturally, as we go about our daily activities. The whole point of random acts of kindness is that we are not calculating how we benefit through the act of kindness. It’s kindness for the sake of kindness.

Have you discovered greater happiness through these sorts of unplanned acts of kindness? These can be very small things, like suddenly offering a seat to someone on the bus, calling a relative who lives alone,  or perhaps reaching out to a fellow student who looks lonely or confused. And, of course, in that kind of situation the worst thing you can ask your colleague or fellow student is, “Oh, you look depressed! What’s the matter?” The best thing to do is simply try to engage them in conversation and express an interest in what they are doing. Active listening, that we described as a key component of close relationships, is itself an act of kindness. As the saying goes, “listening is loving.”

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