All of us have an intense desire to be loved and nurtured. The need to be loved, as experiments by Bowlby and others have shown, could be considered one of our most basic and fundamental needs. One of the forms that this need takes is contact comfort—the desire to be held and touched. Findings show that babies who are deprived contact comfort, particularly during the first six months after they are born, grow up to be psychologically damaged.
Given the importance of the need to be loved, it isn’t surprising that most of us believe that a significant determinant of our happiness is whether we feel loved and cared for. In the surveys that I have conducted, people rate “having healthy relationships” as one of their top goals—on par with the goal of “leading a happy and fulfilling life.”
In our pursuit of the need to be loved, however, most of us fail to recognize that we have a parallel need: the need to love and care for others. This desire, it turns out, is just as strong as the need to be loved and nurtured. It is the desire to love and take care of others that underlies the phenomenon of “cute aggression.” Cute aggression refers to the tendency to pinch, hug, or otherwise express love for others—particularly cute babies, kittens or puppies—in ways that mildly hurt or cause discomfort to the object of our affection.
We know that the desire to love and care for others is a hard-wired and deep-seated because the fulfillment of this desire enhances our happiness levels. Expressing love or compassion for others benefits not just the recipient of affection, but also the person who delivers it.
And what’s more, it appears that even small acts of kindness generate just as much happiness as do lofty acts. In an interesting set of studies, participants were either given $5 or $20 as part of an experiment. Participants in both groups were then asked to either spend the money on themselves or on others. Those who spent the money on others, it turned out, grew happier than those who spent it on themselves. More interestingly, the amount of money spent on others didn’t make a difference to happiness levels: those who spent $5 derived just as much happiness as those who spent $20. Michael Norton, one of the study co-authors summarizes the deep-seated and universal nature of the need to love in his excellent TED talk.
If the need to love is hardwired and universal and is also a powerful determinant of happiness, why aren't many of us aware of it? Take the question: “What would make you most happy?” We do not answer with “serving others” or "showering love on someone." But rather with "money" or "being loved"?
Maybe the answer has to do with the messages we are routinely exposed to, from our care-takers and the media. These messages suggest that our happiness lies in being the recipient of others’ attention, love, and respect, rather than in being the donors of attention, love, and respect. For example, most of us are explicitly or implicitly told that happiness lies in achieving self-enhancing goals such as career success, wealth, fame, or power. The need to love and care for others, in contrast, is rarely emphasized, except perhaps in the arts.
What should a happiness maximizer do?
The happiness maximizer would be well advised to follow the Dalai Lama’s dictum: Be Selfish, Be Generous.
There are at least three reasons why those who practice generosity experience a boost in happiness levels. First, because people have an inherent propensity to be fair to others, recipients of generosity feel pressured to reciprocate it. Thus, when you are generous to others, you attract generous behaviors from them in return.
What goes around, comes around.
Second, in a phenomenon known as homophily, when you are generous, chances are, you will attract others who are similarly generous to you. And hanging out with generous and compassionate people is, for obvious reasons, more happiness-enhancing than hanging out with self-centered and materialistic people.
Finally, and this may be the most important reason why being generous enhances happiness levels, is because of the story you tell yourself. When you are generous, the story you tell yourself is that you have everything you need and more, which is why you can afford to be generous. In contrast, when you are miserly and greedy with your affection, the story you tell yourself is that you are a beggar who is dissatisfied with what you have and that you need more to be happy.
A well-kept secret to happiness, then, is to practice generosity. To derive a boost in happiness levels through generosity, however, it is not enough to recognize the link between the need to love and happiness; it is important to explicitly exhibit generosity—or “giftivism,” as Nipun Mehta calls it.
But how does one bring oneself to act in generous ways?
When I stress the importance of being generous to boost happiness levels with my students, most of them feel that they are not yet ready to be generous: they feel that they need to achieve greater wealth and success first before they can start being generous. An unspoken assumption underlying this way of thinking is that being generous requires significant resources. In reality, as the experiment with the $5 and $20 revealed, you can practice generosity with very little resources. In fact, being generous need not involve the expenditure of any resources.
For the final project in the class that I teach, I urge my students to think of a creative way in which they can bring joy and happiness to complete strangers. Students are charged with the task of finding simple and creative ways to spread joy to others. Some teams incurred relatively heavy expenses for this project, whereas others didn’t. For example, one of the teams bought and donated equipment to repair and construct houses—an act that involved the expenditure of significant resources. Another group, in contrast, simply wore goofy costumes and stood on street corners and jumped around while holding a "smiley" placard. Remarkably, both groups experienced an equal boost in happiness levels, suggesting that, from the standpoint of enhancing happiness levels, it is more important to act with the intention of being generous than it is to expend significant resources.
As echoed in Mother Teresa's famous quote, it is more important to do small things with great love than to do great things with little love.
If you are curious about the effect that the need to love can have on your happiness levels, why not play a "happiness prank" on someone? Consider leaving a box of chocolates outside your favorite (and unsuspecting) neighbors' door. Or pay for the person standing in line at the coffee shop.
Then, share your experiences of perpetrating a simple and random act of generosity with us.