3 Reasons Why the Greatest Gift You Can Give Others…Is To Be Happy

Photo by Shoaib Altaf
Photo by Shoaib Altaf
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The Challenge: We often feel like we don’t deserve to be happy, or that being happy is selfish.
The Science: Research shows that your happiness spreads to others and brings out the best in you.
The Solution: Investing in your own fulfillment is one of the greatest gifts you can give to others!
Happiness – it’s an inalienable right, it’s even in the US constitution. You see it everywhere from sitcoms to couples walking by. But…we also often get the message that seeking personal happiness is somehow selfish or that – considering the suffering in the world – we don’t have a right to it.

Well you’re right and you’re not. It is selfish and there is a lot of suffering in the world. But that is precisely why you should be finding happiness.

Here’s why:

For One, it Makes you Contagious

It’s true, you literally infect others. Your well-being has an enormously influential impact on everyone around you up to 3 degrees of separation away from you! Research studies show that parents’ well-being improve their children’s, and people’s happiness uplifts their spouses. But did you know it also influences strangers you will never meet like your best friend’s landlord? Research by social scientists James Fowler of UC San Diego and Nicolas Christakis of Harvard suggests that happiness spreads up to three degrees of separation from us: if you’re happy, your best friend’s sister, hairdresser’s spouse, and colleague’s son will also be happier.

Two, It Brings Out the Best In You

When you say or do something you later regret, maybe by reacting too quickly and snapping, you often use the expression “Well, I was just not myself that day because I was ____ (fill in the blank: tired/drunk/stressed…”). When you’re happy, however, you often actually do feel like yourself because happiness brings out the best in you.

Why? Because instead of focusing on yourself, your attention is freed up to notice others. Think about it, when you’re down in the dumps, it’s all about me, myself, and I. And there’s research to back that up too (anxious and depressed moods lead to an increase in self-focus). However, when you feel positive emotions, on the other hand, research shows that your perspective broadens and it’s more easy to reach out to others and connect as well as to see things from a broader (wiser?) perspective (for more on that, see research by Barbara Fredrickson of the University of North-Carolina at Chapel Hill).

Think about it, on a “life sucks” day, we can get so tunnel-visioned in our grumpiness that we won’t even notice a friend walk by. However, on a day when you are feeling great, you are more likely to notice if someone needs help and to reach out a helping hand. (Ironically, for that reason, a great way to increase our happiness is to be empathetic, to reach out and to help others.)

Three, You Start Influencing Everyone

You’ve seen them: those jolly, joyful, and light-hearted people. The ones that walk into a room and everything just feels slightly better. It could be a family member, a friend, a 4th grade teacher—heck, your dog! They light up a room and leave you feeling lighter, warmer and just a tad more joyful. The bottom line: Your happiness uplifts and inspires.

There’s science to this. When we see someone happy doing something happy people do like making someone feel better or helping them, we get a warm and fuzzy inspired feeling (you may even shed a tear or feel a chill). Psychologist Jonathan Haidt has appropriate coined his state “elevation”—maybe because it makes you feel a little high for a moment. Well the data shows that when you experience elevation from watching someone help someone else, you’re more likely to then go and do something sweet for someone else! Bottom line: If you’re happy, you’re more likely to help and uplift others, and your actions inspire others to go out, be happy, and help others.

This isn’t just for friends and family, folks. It’s at work too. When Haidt and his colleagues applied his research to a business setting, he found that when leaders were fair and self-sacrificing, their employees would experience elevation. As a consequence, they felt more loyal and committed to their boss and were more likely to act in a helpful and friendly way with other employees even when they had nothing to gain from it! In other words, being happy inspires others and they go out and make the world a better place (and the cherry on top: They are more loyal to you too!).

What does that mean? You’re creating culture, son!

Bonus: It teaches you to get real.

Research by Shelley Gable and Jonathan Haidt suggests that we actually have three times more positive experiences than negative. We have simply forgotten that fact for a number of reasons (explained here).

Happiness – It’s Not For You, But it is the Most Selfless Thing You Can Do.


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Emma Seppälä

Emma Seppälä

EMMA SEPPÄLÄ, Ph.D. is the author of The Happiness Track: How to Apply the Science of Happiness to Accelerate Your Success and Science Director of Stanford University's Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education. She also teaches at Yale University and consults with the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. She founded Fulfillment Daily and a frequent contributor to Harvard Business Review and Psychology Today.
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