A big, uncomfortable truth of life is that, deep inside, we don’t wish other people to be happier than ourselves. We skirt this issue because we want to appear magnanimous and good. The best among us want humanity as a whole to be happier in as much that their well-being affects our own. We want a better gross national product and a more robust national economy because as the nation’s citizens’ standards of living improve, our own standard of living should rise, too.
As we dig deeper into the parts of our consciences that we repress, we do not wish for particular people to be happier than us. Feelings of discomfort and insecurity arise within us when we notice other people’s happiness. We perceive that other people’s happiness threatens our own well-being somehow. Because we have limited resources, we imagine their happiness has come at some cost to us. This is the root of envy.
“Set your heart on doing good. Do it over and over again, and you will be filled with joy.”–Shakyamuni Buddha
All of the major spiritual traditions and religions remind us to be less greedy and to cultivate generosity. There is a paradox that His Holiness The 14th Dalai Lama mentioned in one of his lectures I heard a few years ago. He said that being generous and helpful is being selfish. In effect, being generous is a selfish act–but in a very good way.
The Dalai Lama said he discovered that generosity improved his physical health, deepened his sense of purpose, lowered his stress levels, and made him feel happier. Helping others became a way of helping himself. In a sense, his selfless acts are often selfish acts. This type of selfishness is not negative and greedy; it’s selfish in that it builds high-quality relationships with others and with oneself. When we feel closer to others, we have a sense of community and connectedness. There is less “us versus them” mentality. The interconnectedness fosters inner peace and joy. Another side-benefit is that selfless acts diminish the envy we might otherwise feel.
We possess an inner voice that is often self-critical and can undermine our self-confidence. Helping to lift others distracts us from the monkey-mind’s chattering of negativity. When we see another person or creature benefiting from our helpful deeds, we strengthen our perception of worthiness. So, the Dalai Lama claims that benefiting others is the gift that keeps on giving to oneself.
When push comes to shove, people basically just want ourselves to be happy. Even in the act of bringing other’s happiness, they believe doing so will somehow make themselves more happy. We see this happening with people involved in helping friends, family, and charities. We do such work because we feel deeply rewarded when we ease the burdens of less fortunate people. This is a beautiful truth.