The Secret to Happiness?
Even Children feel better when they share what they have.
-Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton
Last week, I (Tom) was enjoying my vacation at the beach with my wife and two children. One of the days my two a half year old son Luke was playing in the sand when another young girl about his age tried to play along with him. He quickly jumped out of the sand and started grabbing all of his toys so she couldn’t play. After several minutes of withholding all of his possessions from her, he finally gave in. For the next hour both children played nicely together constructing and reconstructing sand castles. Although it may have been humorous in the moment for all of us adults, his rant turned out to be a good life lesson. For, from a very early age when we learn to share what we have, not just our things but ourselves, we learn a very valuable lesson about what brings us true happiness, joy, and fulfillment in this life.
In an opinion piece in yesterday’s NY Times–Don’t Indulge. Be Happy.-Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton write about the relationship between income and happiness. Their basic message, which we really appreciate, is that after a certain income level is reached people are generally not happier as their incomes rise from there. In short, money does not buy our happiness. But the research shows, that it is the giving away of money, the sharing of money, that truly does bring greater happiness. When we give we find far more fulfillment and satisfaction. We believe the same principle applies–not just to our money–but to our time, our hearts, our compassion, our forgiveness, and ourselves. When we share ourselves in any way we are not only giving a gift to others but we are creating the gift of happiness and joy and contentment for ourselves as well.
It is what powerful people such as Bill and Melinda Gates, Bono, Bill Clinton, George H. W. Bush, Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter, and Oprah, for example, have learned. Each of these individuals have amassed great wealth and fame in their lives but every one of them would probably say that it is in the giving away of what they have been given through their philanthropic efforts that they feel is their greatest work. And while very few of us will ever achieve the wealth and notoriety that they have, we too in giving of ourselves can achieve our greatest work and legacy in this life.
I (Michael) remember a Saturday afternoon a few years ago when I went to the home of a man I have been counseling for several years. He had passed away two days before. I had been invited to visit his family and to share with them my relationship with him. I remember the feeling of utter gratitude and privilege as I sat around the family’s kitchen table with his wife, father, brothers, and children, and talked about what his life meant to each of us and what we each learned from his journey toward death. I also remember the feelings of utter awe and emotion when I was invited into the room in which he had died in his home, where his body still lay, and where his wife, closing the door behind her, said, “I’ll give you a few minutes alone with him.” It was such an intimate and intense moment, one that moved me very deeply and I know always will. And that moment was given to me because of the time and love I shared with this man over the years, a man who had become not just someone I counseled but also a dear friend. Again, I was grateful for the time I had given to him in the last years of his life. I was also grateful for what he gave to me in those last years of his life–he shared his wisdom, the wisdom that can only come from a dying man who is able to see what really matters in life, of a man who understands the frailty of life and who understood what we must do to savor life for this brief time that we are here. He gave away his wisdom and insights to so many of us and because of that I know that he died a peaceful, contented and happy man.
So once again, it is in giving of ourselves and not just taking that gives us the greatest reward and meaning to life.