Do you know what makes you happy?

Stop and think about it for a moment.  What truly makes you happy?

Successful living isn’t just about achieving things, it’s about maintaining a consistent level of happiness – after-all everyone wants to be happy right?

People think that happiness is something that just happens to them, but the truth is – we have to work at it, and this starts by understanding what it is that ignites happiness in the first place.

You might be surprised by what I’m about to tell you, but I had a recent experience that literally changed the way I view happiness in a heartbeat. When I’m coaching, I’ve seen people literally change the way they view the world in a moment and I know that profound experiences can also change everything as we know it in a matter of seconds. This is what happened for me just a few weeks ago.

My personal story of happiness

Here’s my story (and then I’ll back it up with the stats after just to be sure what I experienced isn’t a stand alone event).

Two weeks ago I went on a pretty adventurous trip to India. I went through Varanasi (and the burning Ghats), to the Kumbh Mela (the worlds largest human gathering with 100million people) and then to a beautiful little town called Vrindavan.

Vrindavan is like nowhere I’ve ever experienced. It is such an uplifting place and it’s near on impossible to be unhappy here. The people are so, so happy that before you know it, you too become contagious with happiness and can’t help but pass it on to others.

There’s a reason why these people are so happy and it’s probably not what you think. The people of Vrindavan don’t have alot in the way of material possessions. They don’t live in big houses, they don’t drive fast cars or have spare cash to buy new clothes. But they do have one thing that I believe is priceless.

On a bright blue-skied morning, I am lucky enough to be taken on a forest walk through the beautiful marigold fields of Vrindavan (by local Swami Dhanurdhara). As we go through numerous gates, climb under mesh wired fences and scuttle through local farmers back yards we finally arrive at a winding pathway.

Before long a small, intriguing local with a long wispy beard appears on the path and greets SwamiJi. He lives in the forest in a small hut with his family. We are immediately invited in to visit this lovely man’s home. He is a simple man who works making garlands out of marigolds. He has an incredible, gentle sense of peace and pure contentedness about him. I wonder what his secret is.

All 27 of us totter through the gate and he sits us down on the ground alongside the straw building that is his home. What happens next completely blows me away. When we arrived, his wife was in the middle of cooking lunch for the family – but as we are his guests, he offers all 27 of us the entire meal that has been prepared for his family.

This is a man who probably earns less than one dollar a day – and he is offering 27 westerners (who clearly make a lot more money than he does) his family’s entire lunch – after only knowing them for approximately 2 minutes. Even more astoundingly he does it with genuine pleasure. There is no reluctance or annoyance that he and his family will go without a meal for the day because of this unknown group of tourists – he genuinely wants to give.

What this man possesses that is utterly priceless – is compassion. And what hit me in this moment was not only the beauty of such a profound gesture but also the pure happiness that this man was receiving just by giving.

Compassion makes you happy

Now if you’re thinking this all sounds a bit cliché (the old ‘give to receive’ saying) – the science backs it up. A brain imaging study by neuroscientist Jordan Grafman from the National Institute of Health has shown that there are pleasure centers in the brain and these are the parts that are active when we experience pleasure (like favorite foods, money, shopping and sex). What they found was that these pleasure centres are just as active when we observe someone giving money to charity as when we receive money ourselves. This explains why I felt such extreme happiness when I witnessed the local man giving his family’s lunch away to a bunch of strangers.

In addition, research has shown that giving to others actually increases well-being more than when we spend money on ourselves. Harvard Business School professor Michael Norton backs this up with his study where participants received a sum of money – half of the participants were told to spend the money on themselves and the other half were instructed to spend the money on others. After the study, those who had spent money on others felt significantly happier than those that had spent the money on themselves.

Compassion puts an end to personal problems

There really is truth in the saying “give and you will receive.” If you think about it, it’s obvious, when we’re so focused on our own lives and the problems that go hand in hand – it can be hard to gain perspective. You end up over-generalising and blowing things out of proportion. Whereas when you take a moment to step outside of your own issues and focus on someone else, you have no choice but to forget about your own problems, even if only for a few minutes.

When I was witnessing the man in the forest give away his family’s lunch – I was definitely not worrying about anything in my own life. It’s this focus, on others that can literally pull us out of our own worries and problems.

Compassion has long term health benefits

Not only does compassion make you feel good, research has also shown links between compassion and good health. Ed Deiner and Martin Seligman found that connecting with others in a meaningful way helps you enjoy better mental and physical health, speeds up recovery from disease and may even lengthen your life.

In-fact, recent insightful research (by Steve Cole and Barbara Fredrickson) has shown a direct correlation between happiness and a decrease in diseases such as Cancer. It’s been found that Inflammation is often the cause of cancer and other serious diseases and is generally high in people who live under a lot of stress. This study looked at the levels of inflammation in people who described themselves as happy and those who were ‘stressed’.

What’s interesting is that the research found inflammation levels were only lower in those people who described themselves as very happy in the context of a life full of meaning and purpose. Those people who described themselves as very happy because of a certain standard of living (ie wealth, material possessions) still had high inflammation levels. The upshot is that true happiness comes not from winning the lottery or earning a lot of money and living a fun-filled life – but from living a life of compassion, purpose and meaning.

Simple Life Strategy: 5 Ways to Increase Your Happiness Today

I was so blown away by the compassionate man in India that I myself have made a commitment to practice compassion on a daily basis. If you found this story inspiring, maybe you can join me by practicing compassion in any of the following ways. It won’t just make others happy, it will make you happy too in a way that increases your own health and may even extend your life (pretty good reasons to start if you ask me).

1. Practice compassion with your friends. Cheer up a friend with some flowers, offer to help them move house, have them over for dinner or help them out when they need a shoulder to cry on.

2. Practice compassion with your neighbours. What can you do to help a neighbour out? Offer to drive them somewhere, help elderly neighbours out with shopping or offer to feed their pets when they are away.

3. Practice compassion with your family. Help cook the next family dinner or lunch, send a surprise gift to a family member, help a sibling just by listening to their problems.

4. Practice compassion with strangers. Offer your seat to an elderly person on the bus, help those with less physical strength with their shopping, help someone out who looks lost.

5. Practice compassion with pets. Feed your pets before you feed yourself. Find a nice treat for your pet, take your pet out for an extra long walk, or just take the time to give them some extra special pats.

These are just a few ideas to get you started – have a go at practicing compassion in any way that feels right to you and notice how you feel inside.

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