In Pursuit of Happiness

By Stephen Post

The words “’tis more blessed to give than to receive” echo down the centuries in the famous prayer of St. Francis of Assisi, “not so much to be loved as to love,” and in Shakespeare’s renowned lines on the “quality of mercy” that blesses the giver as well as the receiver. The paradox is that in the giving of self lies the unsought discovery of a happier self. The echo is heard in modern times as well. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “It is one of the most beautiful compensations of this life that no man can sincerely try to help another without helping himself….” Dr. Albert Schweitzer affirmed, “The only ones among you who will be really happy are those who have sought and found how to serve.” Dickens captured the refrain in the person of Scrooge, for whom buoyancy returns with each new expression of benevolence. Does happiness really ensue from benevolent love?

Sir John Templeton often writes about the importance of studying the ways in which the giving of love benefits the giver. His philosophy of life is nicely summed up as follows: just love and let everything else take care of itself, because the real benefit is in the inherent joy of giving. The American media reflected this thinking in its 2006 coverage of the recently deceased Secret Santa, Larry Stewart, who kept a secret identity over the years as he dressed up around Christmastime to pass out hundred dollar bills to the needy. As he stated in his hometown Kansas City Star, “The feeling that comes from that kind of giving, it’s almost an addiction it feels so good.” He came to love himself on the basis of his ability to love others.

Abraham Heschel, the Dalai Lama, Mother Theresa, Dame Cicely Saunders and many others exemplify a buoyant happiness that comes from giving. C.K. Chesterton, in his classic work, Orthodoxy, concludes with his celebrated passage on mirth and joy as the hidden virtues of Jesus. It is the participation in the flow of love energy that seems to secure happiness. In this sense, as St. Paul wrote, “love never fails.”

This form of happiness is available to every person without exception. What a contrast with the Greek philosophers, for whom happiness was only for the very few who could live in accordance with reason! While happiness was more widely attainable for the Romans, they considered it nothing more than the enjoyment of the simple pleasures of life, carpe diem. Insofar as the Christianity of Augustine understood happiness as unattainable in this life, we must turn to Thomas Aquinas, who allowed for an imperfect worldly happiness (felicitas) to co-exist with the perfect heavenly bliss of beatitude, available only after death. Throughout the Renaissance, Reformation, and Enlightenment, the view unfolded that the pursuit of happiness on earth is for everyone. Thomas Jefferson deemed the pursuit a natural right. But pursuing happiness does not mean that we will find it. The message from Sir John is that doing good makes us feel good, and enhances our self-esteem.

In a scientific breakthrough in 2006 researchers from the National Institutes of Health Cognitive and Emotional Health Project: The Healthy Brain, discovered that there is a physiological basis for the warm glow that seems to accompany giving to others. In this research, scientists wanted to uncover the neurology of unselfish actions that reach out beyond kin to strangers. Nineteen subjects were each given money and a list of causes to which they might contribute. The functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) revealed that making a donation activated the brain’s reward center, the mesolimbic pathway, which is responsible for dopamine-mediated euphoria.

Some will say that the connection between doing good and feel good chemicals in the brain reduces altruism to selfishness. If selfishness is to be defined so widely as to include even the sense of warmth that follows from unselfish actions, then we need more of it, not less. Research shows that enhanced happiness is associated with any number of things, such as being born happy—genetics—or having a meaningful job. It is also clear that it really is better to give than to receive, or at least as good. We never find happiness when we settle for selfishness. As the 16th-century Hindu poet Tulsidas wrote, “In service to others is happiness, in selfishness is misery and pain.” In the words of Proverbs 11:15, “those who refresh others will be refreshed.” Sir John has it right!


Stephen G. Post, Ph.D., is president of the Institute for Research on Unlimited Love, and co-author, with journalist Jill Neimark, of Why Good Things Happen to Good People: The Exciting New Science That Proves the Link Between Doing Good and Living a Longer, Healthier, Happier Life. (Broadway Books/ Random House, May 2007). Post is also the editor of Altruism and Health: Empirical Perspectives (Oxford University Press, June 2007.) Institute for Research on Unlimited Love www.unlimitedloveinstitute.org

This article is courtesy of The John Templeton Foundation (www.templeton.org).