Research: The Key Ingredient to Genuine Happiness

If we can direct our thoughts toward the well-being of others, says Daniel Goleman, it will help promote a more enduring, genuine kind of happiness.

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We would all like to be happier in our personal and professional lives, even those of us who already love what we do, or are content with personal accomplishments. As the year comes to a close, we often become more introspective: what do we want to do more/less of next year? What worked, and what didn’t?

Richard Davidson of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds is a research pioneer on the benefits of meditation. One positive outcome of meditation that’s piqued his interest is happiness.

Mirabai Bush spoke with Richard for the series Working with Mindfulness: Research and Practice of Mindful Techniques in Organizations. Davidson talked about his research with long-time meditation practitioners. His findings helped him piece together what may be important ingredients for genuine or enduring happiness.

“When we’re talking about genuine or enduring happiness, we’re not talking about the transient change that you experience when you eat a good meal. Or when you buy a new product, after which you rapidly return to your set point. We’re talking about an enduring change that persists across contexts.

Based on our findings, one of the key ingredients seems to be compassion. This is something that His Holiness the Dalai Lama talks about very often. He said one of the best ways to promote one’s own happiness is to be kind to others, to be generous. There’s good experimental research to support that.

In one study, participants came into the lab in the morning and were given $100 each. They were told to spend the money on themselves.

Another group was given the same amount of money but were told to buy things for other people and give it to them. The only restriction: you can’t use any of the money for yourself. At the end of the day, guess which group reported much higher levels of happiness?

The givers.

We see this repeatedly. The evidence is beginning to grow that adopting a stance that is focused on other as opposed to self is something that really helps to promote well-being and happiness.

Another study found that 47% of the time the average American is mind wandering and not paying attention to what they’re doing. What are we thinking about? The mind wandering is typically self-focused. And when they are self-focused, they report most of the time that they are in a relatively negative mood. They’re not happy.

One of the conclusions from that study is that a wandering mind is an unhappy mind. I think that if we can direct our thoughts toward the well-being of others, it actually will help in promoting a more enduring, genuine kind of happiness.

In the long-term practitioners we studied we noticed that they practiced compassion so much that it becomes an automatic response. They’re always focused on the well-being of others and not on themselves.”

Adapted from Daniel Goleman’s Linkedin page