I write about happiness and human nature, and a question I often hear is, “In a world so full of suffering and injustice, is it morally appropriate to seek to be happier?” In fact, research shows—and common experience confirms—that happier people are more interested in the problems of the world, and more interested in the problems of the people around them.
Happier people tend to volunteer more time, the donate more money, they’re more likely to vote, they have healthier habits, they make better leaders and team members, they’re more tolerant of frustration, they’re more likely to lend a hand. When we’re unhappy, it’s easy to become isolated, defensive, and preoccupied with our own problems. When we’re happier in our own lives, we have the emotional wherewithal to turn outward, and to think about the suffering of the world, and to find ways to help.
Some people assume that those who are happy in their own lives spend their time sipping margaritas by the beach. In fact, they’re more likely to start to think about whether there’s a more effective way to distribute malaria nets.
I read a passage that reminded me of this, in The Genesee Diary of Catholic theologian Henri Nouwen. He wrote:
If I am able to remember loneliness during joy, I might be able in the future to remember joy during loneliness and so be stronger to face it and help others face it. In 1970 I felt so lonely that I could not give; now I feel so joyful that giving seems easy. I hope that the day will come when the memory of my present joy will give me strength to keep giving even when loneliness gnaws at my heart.
We don’t have to choose between working toward being happier ourselves and working to increase the happiness of others. The two states reinforce each other.