Over the centuries spiritual and moral thinkers have prescribed ways of living that lead to greater happiness over the course of a lifetime, and the best of them from Socrates to Buddha, from Jesus to Maimonides, have powerfully lived out what they taught. The goal of a good life, they agreed, is a deep happiness consistent with simplicity, integrity, and a profound generosity. The great thinkers have never thought of happiness as primarily rooted in the hedonic indulgence of the senses, but rather they have described a sense of well-being and satisfaction that comes from a higher purpose pursued over times. Opinion has differed as to how happy we can expect to become in this mixed up world, and as to what goals and purposes in life really deliver on happiness. Rather than sort out these debates, I wish only to convince the reader that the key spiritual secret of any happier and healthier life is the deeper kindness that can be captured with the term "Gift-love," a term borrowed here from C.S. Lewis.
We are busy in life with what Lewis termed "Need-love," loving and seeking the things we need, from good food to a decent coat. And we certainly all need and seek to be loved, for if we do not receive love we will not be able to give it away. Yet even when we pursue the things we need, it is often not just for ourselves, but for the nearest and dearest who depend on us. This points to the other side of life, to Gift-love, a sincere love of others that is commonly taught by exhortation but is really transmitted by example, and that we typically identify with spiritual and moral goodness. My thesis, more clearly stated, is that as a side-effect or by-product of Gift-love we generally feel happier and are heathier over the whole of a life.
This thesis is old, but it can be forgotten, so it bears repeating from time to time. Indeed, it echoes in literature over the generations. Henry David Thoreau wrote that love is "the only investment that never fails." Abraham Lincoln stated, "When I do good, I feel good; when I do bad, I feel bad, and that is my religion." It is said that Lincoln was prone to occasional melancholy. One way he overcame this was by doing "unto others" in the many small acts of neighbourly kindness for which he was so well known. Ralph Waldo Emerson described the path to happiness thus: "No man can sincerely help another without helping himself." Sincerely is the key word. There is an after-glow when we do good, a satisfaction that flows from authentic giving, and not from actions that are primarily motivated by self-concern. Psalm 11:25 reads, "Those who refresh others are themselves refreshed." The "kitchen table" wisdom around this thesis is perennial.
A happier life revolves around at least one immaterial good - love. We cannot grasp Gift-love like a coin, but this warmth and concern for another is more real and meaningful than anything we can possess. Here is an exercise: close your eyes and intensely imagine giving to the person in your life who you love most, and then open your eyes and feel your heart strangely warmed. This state of being and related action in Gift-love is the Highest Spiritual Good for each of first because giving does so much for others, and secondarily, because it is a key source of joy and health for givers.
When we cultivate sincere Gift-love through day-to-day practice, we inadvertently discover the great paradox that underlies fuller human flourishing - in the giving of self lies the surprising discovery of a happier and healthier self. This paradox underlies most spiritual and moral wisdom.
Sustainable happiness, which is an enduring inner joy, does not lie in worldly power and fame, although a good life will often be recognized and celebrated as such; nor does it lie in extra riches that are divorced from creative giving. We all have real needs for tangible possessions, and having the basics is naturally going to relieve stress, but ample research shows that sustainable happiness does not come from that new pair of pricey designer jeans or a fancier car. These external successes are fleeting victories on the "hedonic treadmill" even at their best. Sustainable happiness comes mostly from within us. Oliver Wendell Holmes put this point well: "What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us." Tolstoy grasped this by emphasizing that, "the kingdom of heaven is within you" (Luke 17:20). So we very often encounter people who do not have much, but they do have radiant and joyful Gift-love, and their smile is so natural and real.
Many difficult circumstances befall us all, and in the end, no one gets out of life alive. But it is to our great advantage to find a way through life in Gift-love, for the alternatives of bitterness and hostility will harm us over time like acid on metal. We are ultimately in charge of our responses to life. We create peace or a nightmare in freedom; and we are always free to denounce illusions and return to love. How significant individual choice is. Abraham Lincoln, who was no fool, wrote, "A man is just about as happy as he makes up his mind to be." In the Hebrew Bible, Job lost his house, wife, children, riches, and even his health. He was completely wiped out, and he was rightly angry. Every bad thing happened to him that could. Yet through this terrible testing Job never loses his faith in the ultimate power of goodness. Good things finally happened for Job, though there were bad things along the way.
We must all be Jobs in that we are all tested, and when we are tested there is a deeper kind of learning that goes on. It is experiential, not intellectual. There is a frightening darkness that comes from disappointment, tragedy, hurt, illness, or injustice. By showing concern for others, however, regardless of circumstances, we rise up to our deeper identity and dignity as human beings. Suffering can be so deep that we just want to give up, and we may become self-destructive or destroy the lives of those we love. In reality, we simply have no good option other than to defiantly refuse to give up on the ways and the power of love.
There are three aspects to the happiness that Gift-love brings to the giver. First, as Washington Irving, put it so well: "Love is never lost. If not reciprocated, it will flow back and soften and purify the heart." So first, as Plato understood, to be good is to be in harmony with oneself, and to live meaningfully. Gift-love is its own emotional and spiritual reward, and no one can take this away. Second, Gift-love often does beget love, just as hate usually begets hate, and so good givers need to be good receivers, although sometimes they are not. Third, though, we should never count on reciprocity because this is sure to be frustrating and ultimately small-minded. Better to take joy when those upon whom our love is bestowed do not "pay it back" to us, but rather "pay it forward" to others as they move through life remembering our good example. We have only to love people and hope that, as Jesus taught, they will be inspired to "go and do likewise." Or to bring this to the kitchen table, as I heard one Italian mother in Cleveland tell her son, "Love and forget about it!" When a thoughtful act of Gift-love seems to achieve nothing, in the long term such actions always help sway the balance of good over evil in society.
Clearly I believe that when it comes to love, nothing is ever futile. My optimism is based in a faith in love. St. Paul linked "faith, hope, and love," and he proclaimed that "love never fails." What is faith but having confidence that no matter how harsh a particular scene in the drama of our lives or of history might be, it is love that wrote the play and love that will be revealed in the final act. St. Paul linked faith, hope, and love together for a reason. But just as we see scenes where love seems entirely overwhelmed by hatred, so also there are scenes where love finds an almost miraculous way forward, even in the bleakest of times. Let me offer a brief vignette below as example.
In August of 2004 I was at a business meeting in New York City. It was a meeting that was leading no place, but I could not vote with my feet and not insult some potential donors. 9:30 pm rolled around, and I had no chance of getting my flight from Newark to Cleveland. I had a medical school lecture on compassion and the brain at 8 am the next day, one that I hated to miss. So I walked over to the Port Authority Building on 8th Avenue in the 100 degree heat and got in a bus. The driver turned around and said, "Sorry folks, air conditioner's busted. Do you really wanna go to Cleveland?" We grudgingly consented. About five minutes into the trip I felt a gentle tapping on my right shoulder. I turned around. There was a young fellow, perhaps 18 or so, with the facial features of someone with Downs Syndrome. In a remarkably gentle, warm, and loving voice he asked me, "Sir, are we in Cleveland yet?" I answered, "No, but I will be sure to let you know when we are, okay?" Well, every five minutes across New Jersey and Pennsylvania along my favorite highway Route 80, he asked me the same question and he got the same answer. We became friends for the night in the process. Now, talk about an emotional contrast! In the seat right in front of me was a guy with two little boys who might have been just five or six years old. About every half hour this guy jumped up and slammed his fist into the metal ceiling of the bus, yelling an expletive, and scaring everyone on board. We got to Milesberg, Pennsylvania (Exit 58 on Route 80) at about 4 a.m. Now the claim to fame in Milesberg is a 24/7 stopover shop for buses. We all got out, bought snacks, got refreshed, and headed back for the refueled bus. But the security officer would not allow the fellow in front of me and his two boys back on board! My sad memory is of this fellow kicking the side of the building, screaming, and his two boys in tears. We headed east on Route 80, and almost immediately the young fellow behind me asked, "Sir, are we in Cleveland yet?" Well, we arrived at the Cleveland Greyhound Station on Chester Avenue at about 7 a.m. I gave the kid behind me a hug, met his family, and made my lecture. So what is the point of this story? Simple. If you want to go to Cleveland, hostility won't get you there. It will get you marooned in Milesberg. But love will get you there, even if you are a little cognitively limited and aren't really sure of your bearings in time and place. This is a parable for life - love will get you where you need to go. That guy behind me on the bus had a lesson for us all, and so did the guy in front of me.
Stephen G. Post