Happiness is what our nation is founded on – life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But maybe we have it all wrong in pursuing happiness through fierce individualism and seeking out material things, which give us momentary pleasure and success.
I have found a repeatable path to guaranteed happiness, even joy. And as corny as it sounds, it is quite simple. Serve others with love and compassion. That’s it. Guaranteed happiness is just a few minutes away.
This lesson comes back to me over and over even in the most difficult or traumatic circumstances. Moved by the suffering in Port au Prince after the earthquake in Haiti, I left pursuing my own goals and work to serve others and help relieve what suffering I could.
Despite the devastation, chaos, and pain all around me, in the simple act of service, of focusing on caring for others, of giving love and kindness to each one I touched, to serving the needs of others, I was happy. Even though I had very little to eat or drink, and was witness to unbearable suffering, and wilted daily in the muggy swelter of Haiti and slept (or should I say hardly slept) on a hard floor, I was happy.
And in conceiving and helping to create The Daniel Plan – a faith-based initiative where I volunteered countless hours and days teaching and sharing how to create wellness to a very overweight church congregation who collectively lost 270,000 pounds in the first year, I was happy. I didn’t do it to get something, but to give, to serve with love and compassion.
Last month I went to serve in a Tibetan orphanage at the Dolanji Monastery in northern India near the Tibetan border. There we found 200 kids and about 200 monks who live with very little of anything and almost no medical care. The kids didn’t even have blankets despite the 20 degree nights. Thankfully, a close friend who came with me arranged the purchase and delivery of 350 blankets for them.
The times when I am happiest as a doctor is when I serve those in need expecting nothing in return, when I simply give my time and knowledge in the loving service of others. I went to the orphanage after my pilgrimage to Bhutan, you can read about it here in Part I and Part II of my trek, where I walked and walked – washing away a very difficult year.
Bhutan focuses not only on gross national product but on “gross national happiness”. In my pilgrimage to the mountains and sacred places I found a time to be fallow, to be quiet. In that silence a few clear and strong feelings arose in me, bubbled up after tens of miles of walking up and down mountains and hours of saying the mantra “om mani padme hum” which invokes the values of wisdom and compassion embodied in the jewel and the lotus.
I had to repeat the mantra just so I could muster the strength to climb the 15,000 foot mountains. In the vast and empty quiet those mountains and mantras left inside me, I became very clear about something. It was this – that all my work, my life, and my actions arise from the foundation of compassion and service, in the relieving of suffering and in bringing of joy to each and everyone I touch and everything I do.
This was not a new feeling for me – but in some moments I drift away from that, thinking more of me and what I want. But this I do know. I am happiest when in the act of service with love and compassion.
Sometimes it takes death, divorce or some life trauma to redirect attention to what is true, essential, eternal, and alive, to the essence of a well-lived happy life. Sometimes we have to get hit over the head to know what is true.
But compassionate service is a simple and always accessible path to happiness. It doesn’t require years of mediation, practice, or great study. It requires that you open your heart and feel our common humanness, our inextricable inter-connectedness and see the sacredness of each of us. And then it requires a simple act. You don’t have to feel happy to serve, but by serving you will become happy. Try it!
It is why I create my life to be of service, why from time to time, I go away from what is familiar and comfortable to go to a place to serve others in need. I heard of this monastery and orphanage from a friend of mine and was invited to help care for the orphans, the monks, and the Abbott, the 33rd Abbott of Menri, now 85 years old, who came across the Himalayan passes of Tibet to Nepal to escape the Chinese occupation in 1959.
On his back he brought with him one hundred of the most sacred ancient texts of the Bon religion, the pre-Buddhist indigenous religion of Tibet. Buddhism was founded on the values of compassion and service. The idea of the Bodhisattva is one who has reached the gates of enlightenment only to return to vow to help relieve the suffering of all sentient beings.
Each day I awoke in a sacred valley, the hills covered in a blanket of clouds, the sun breaking over the mountains illuminating the monastery of ornately carved and colored temples of red, yellow, and blue. The morning quiet was broken only by sonorous monk chants and the occasional barking of dogs. Each morning we went to have breakfast with the Abbott who was always joyful, happy, and vibrant; whose life is about service.
I shared with him the haunting dreams of my sister who had just died and how she revisited me every night desperately trying to come back to life, denying her death, apparently caught in the in-between world.
He offered to help with a death and transition ritual to release her spirit. It was all very strange and mysterious to me, but the gift of his service, two hours of chants and prayers, burning offerings, blowing of conch shells, and the banging of richly painted round drums and cymbals by him and nine reincarnated lamas (or so he said), left me peaceful and calm. And after that night my sister seemed to be at peace – or at least she stopped visiting my dreams.
Whether there is life after death, God, or spirits is irrelevant here. The gift to me of his kindness and compassion for my suffering was healing and is the expression of everything Buddhists do. In the afternoons I went to the orphanage to help the children and help run the clinic. Many of the orphans had minor complaints and came just to be touched, held or noticed. They were grateful for the care.
One boy had a large hardened potato-shaped nodule on the back of his head from tuberculosis. The kids teased him and called him potato head. I surgically removed it in pretty rough conditions – pouring a lot of sterilizing liquids (Betadine) over everything.
The scissors and scalpel were dull, the instruments old, but we did it. He was so grateful and I was so happy to help. We had little to work with, ate only rice and lentils, slept on hard wooden beds, had no heat, and barely a functional bathroom, but I was happier than if I were staying at any five-star hotel.
Friends have told me I have a big appetite for life, and I certainly do, but my greatest appetite is for love and service, finding in each day a simple way to serve others with kindness and compassion.
It can be a kind word, a gentle touch, a thoughtful deed or a hand to someone who needs it. Sometimes I give money but that doesn’t make me nearly as happy as the giving of my time and my personal actions to serve others with compassion.
Try it – it is a guaranteed path to happiness. There is only one catch. It has to be self-less, expecting nothing in return, except the joy of giving.
The act of caring for each other is hard-wired into our genes – it is what E.O. Wilson calls group selection, the natural design of our biology to help each other that keeps us all alive – from the tiniest of ants to human beings.
Maybe it is what Jefferson meant when he penned the words “pursuit of happiness”. The magic is that in active compassionate service there is no pursuit, only the experience of happiness.
Think of one compassionate act of service you can do today. The opportunities are all around us. Try to do five acts in a day – your happiness will grow and grow. You can’t think or talk your way into happiness. I have realized that happiness is an action.
Please leave your thoughts by adding a comment below – but remember, we can’t offer personal medical advice online, so be sure to limit your comments to those about taking back our health!
To your good health,
Mark Hyman, MD