Intertwined Happiness: Simultaneously Serving Yourself and Serving Others
None of us could or would deny that there is evil in our world. One need only turn on the television to see the devastation that human beings regularly wreak upon one another. I wrote the first draft of these words this summer, during a period that felt particularly marked by devastation: a suicide bombing in Istanbul, a shooting in Orlando, a global refugee crisis in Syria, hateful and derogatory rhetoric from a US presidential nominee. Certainly, it appears that there are very many reasons to be pessimistic about the state of our planet, our countries, and our own individual lives.
And yet, despite this acute suffering, there is also such goodness in the world. It is not on the front page of the news, and it sometimes takes a mighty effort to drag our brain’s attention towards it, but it is most definitely present. This goodness can be found in many small moments within our daily experience, from a loving embrace, to a kind word, to the way that the sun falls upon the sidewalk. Chade-Meng Tan, the founder of Google's Search Inside Yourself mindfulness program, calls this 'thin-slicing joy', the practice of taking a quick moment to savor the positive moments of our lives, a process that has been shown to increase positive emotions, engagement and meaning. These joys bloom within our relationships, in our work, and even in our own selves: we often surprise ourselves with our own goodness, our desire to help, our capacity to love, our desire to understand, and our ability to get up after a fall.
We possess, as individuals and as a society, the seedlings of both depravity and virtuosity. We are a mixture of dark and light, self-interested and other-interested, oscillating between immediate satisfaction and future fulfillment. This is a duality that is beautifully described by the author Robert Ardrey:
But we were born of risen apes, not fallen angels, and the apes were armed killers besides. And so what shall we wonder at? Our murders and massacres and missiles, and our irreconcilable regiments? Or our treaties whatever they may be worth; our symphonies however seldom they may be played; our peaceful acres, however frequently they may be converted into battlefields; our dreams however rarely they may be accomplished. The miracle of man is not how far he has sunk but how magnificently he has risen. We are known among the stars by our poems, not our corpses.
Human beings evolved at both an individual level and at a group level, wiring us to experience and pursue both self-interest and self-transcendence. Each of us navigates this paradox every day. Too often, we are guilty of choosing the simplistic view that it must a choice between one or the other: it is me or her, us or them. Then, we act upon it.
This belief and action is what leads to most of the suffering in the world. Each of us is attempting to pursue the same ultimate objective of the experience of happiness and avoidance of suffering. Many, many people pursue this goal in a way that is self-interested and short-sighted, hurting the others who are also a part of our world, in a mistaken belief that their happiness is more important or more real than that of others. It is observed in the small pricklings of pain in daily life, like the rejection of our attempts at authenticity, and the massive wounds of our world, as in the devastation of our planet’s bounty.
A new pathway forward would help us to recognize the paradox of our nature and to embrace it.
This pathway begins with the recognition that I want to be happy and that all others want to be happy, that I wish to avoid suffering and that all others wish to avoid suffering. This awareness, cultivated over time and expressed through acts of compassion, empowers us to begin taking responsibility for both ourselves and for the world around us. We shift away from a purely self-interested approach and towards one that recognizes the importance of both us and others: an intertwined happiness that supports our own needs and the needs of our world.
Intertwined happiness is a ‘win-win’, a term adopted by the author Robert Wright in his groundbreaking book Non-Zero. His research finds that nature favors win-win games that have net positive results, a process that constantly leads to greater complexity within societies. The more win-wins that occur within a culture, the more likely that culture is to flourish. Our individual well-being is not separate from the well-being of our society, because we are each a part of that greater whole.
Many of the greatest ambassadors of the human race have beseeched us to recognize this truth. In Meditations, Marcus Aurelius reminds us to “meditate often on the interconnectedness and mutual interdependence of all things in the universe.” Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail tells us that “we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality… whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” The psychologist Abraham Maslow famously articulated a ‘hierarchy of needs’, which posited that human beings have certain needs that must be addressed sequentially: building from physiological to safety to love to esteem and finally to self-actualization. However, towards the end of his life, Maslow appended this perspective, adding on a final level of self-transcendence, which he defined as seeking a benefit beyond one’s own self, such as service, ideals, a cause, or connection with the divine. He argued that self-actualization and self-transcendence are not different processes, that by pursuing one’s own self-actualization in a way that was focused on the common good, one could also simultaneously pursue self-transcendence:
The empirical fact is that self-actualizing people, our best experiencers, are also our most compassionate, our great improvers and reformers of society, our most effective fighters against injustice, inequality, slavery, cruelty, exploitation (and also our best fighters for excellence, effectiveness, competence). And it also becomes clearer and clearer that the best “helpers” are the most fully human persons. What I may call the bodhisattvic path is an integration of self-improvement and social zeal, i.e., the best way to become a better “helper” is to become a better person. But one necessary aspect of becoming a better person is via helping other people. So one must and can do both simultaneously.
Those of us who seek to craft win-wins in our lives are offered the choice to define what that means to us, both in an individual and in a collective sense. It can be tailored for what matters most to you, the impact that you are seeking to make, and the context that are you operating within.
Research from positive psychology can help point us towards different ways to craft win-wins in our own life. Most simply, doing a kindness for someone else provides the most reliable momentary increase in well-being for the giver of any intervention studied. A wise act of kindness is also hopefully a positive experience for the recipient: a win-win.
Flow states, those magical moments where you forget yourself through complete immersion in a task, enable two specific psychological processes of differentiation and integration. Differentiation is the cultivation of one’s own uniqueness, and integration is the cultivation of connection with common humanity. Seeking out flow states provides us with a win-win, developing ourselves and also returning to a recognition of what it means to unite in wholeness.
Many of the world’s religions have recognized our paradoxical nature and offered forms of training to teach us how to cultivate our best selves. Some of these practices, like loving-kindness meditation, have been empirically studied. A typical loving kindness meditation begins with asking an individual to focus on their heart and bring to mind someone who they care for already, experiencing that feeling, and then bring it to themselves, to others in their life, and perhaps to all of humanity. The wishes that might be offered could be: “May you feel safe and protected. May you feel happy and peaceful. May you feel healthy and strong. May you live with ease.” Studies have found that just six weeks of this practice led to increased positive emotions, self-acceptance, positive relationships, and physical health, resulting in greater satisfaction in life and fewer depressive symptoms. A seven-minute loving-kindness meditation was found to increase the feeling of connection between two strangers. In loving others, we become more likely to offer compassion to them and even to identify with their particular group. This is a win-win that encourages us to recognize and revel in our common humanity.
Positive psychology has also studied character strengths, which delineate the different aspects of virtues that a person might possess. These strengths are highly valued within all cultures, energizing to the user, and often extremely beneficial if applied to the world. Only 17% of people say they use their strengths ‘most of the time’ every day. A simple way to find intertwined happiness is to look for a job that allows you to both use your strengths and make an impact on the world in a meaningful way, an approach that increase your individual well-being as well as the greater well-being of our society.
Perhaps most interesting, a body of research has found that giving to others is what gives us our power, defined as the ability to make a difference in the world. We gain power due to what Abraham Lincoln called the “better angels of our nature”, but we lose power due to what is worst within us. Our most powerful and world-changing citizens are those who have dedicated their lives to helping others, and yet they so often fall from that elevated station due to allowing this power to corrupt them or their behavior, or in forgetting to continually focus on what brought them this power in the first place – a desire to help other people. To gain and maintain authentic power, we must remain focused on other people, keeping their well-being and interests as elevated of a priority as we do our own.
Writing this is an example of an expression of intertwined happiness for me. It leverages my signature strengths of 'love of learning' and 'creativity' towards the personal purpose I feel so passionately about - helping people to understand that they have incredible goodness within them that can be cultivated and embodied in the world. If I am successful at connecting with just one person, I will have created a win-win.
Each reader will have their own ideas about how to embody intertwined happiness, creating win-wins through pathways as diverse as parenting, work, relationships, creating, connecting, or volunteering. The beauty of this approach is that it invites each person to craft a life that supports their particular vision of well-being and that contributes towards the collective well-being of us all. The science of positive psychology offers us a way to cultivate a way of being through the choices that we make as individuals – something that can not only create personal fulfillment and happiness, but transform our experience within our lives and provide a way for each of us to positively impact the world around us.