Each day we have countless opportunities to choose. We make choices about what activities to pursue, how we spend our time and money, and where we focus the precious resource of our attention. What kinds of choices make us happy? Researchers in the field of positive psychology, have investigated this question in depth, and their findings may surprise you. The first kind of choice they looked at was the pursuit of personal pleasures – such as eating a good meal, having a glass of wine, going to a movie, and shopping. These pleasures do increase our happiness but only temporarily, for a few hours or a day or two at most. The choices that really make us happy are those that allow us to express our creativity or promote the happiness of another person. If you want instant happiness, the secret is to open your heart and give freely and without any expectations.
The intention behind your giving is the most important thing, for when you give unconditionally and from the heart, the energy and joy in the act of giving increases many times over. While material gifts are wonderful, keep in mind that what really brings people happiness are these four qualities of being:
Attention is deep listening. When we give our attention, we are completely present and open as we focus on understanding another person’s perspective – even when we don’t agree with it. We don’t give advice (unless the other person directly asks for it) and we don’t interrupt or try to get someone to hurry up and “get to the point.” According to neuroscientists, when we practice deep listening, the person who is being heard experiences a “cooling down” or slowing of activity in the amygdala – the “primitive” part of our brain that processes fear and anxiety and produces the “fight-or-flight” response when we feel threatened. Simply by listening attentively to someone, we are actually helping to calm their brain and reduce their stress, which has many benefits for physical and emotional wellbeing.
Appreciation is letting someone know that you value them and are grateful they are in your life. You notice the qualities you love about a person and share your appreciation for who they are, their unique gifts, and the ways in which their presence and actions bring more peace, joy, and laughter into the world. The best gift that we can give to someone is to leave them feeling a little bit lighter.
Affection is deep caring. We express our affection through our words, physical touch, and other actions, letting someone know that we are there for them. Loving touch is particularly vital to health and happiness. It releases a shower of natural pain-relieving and mood-elevating chemicals throughout the body, calming the mind’s busy chatter and promoting feelings of safety, comfort, and relaxation. While technology allows us to see and hear each other from a distance, it can’t create the true connection and fulfillment that comes from loving touch.
One of the deepest human needs is acceptance . . . that feeling of being completely seen and accepted, even with all of our weaknesses, inconsistencies, and shortcomings. According to the ancient Vedic sages, one of the greatest attributes of an enlightened being is the ability to embrace life’s inherent ambiguity. Though most of us haven’t attained enlightenment, we can still cultivate this ability to embrace paradox and accept both ourselves and others exactly as they – and we – are.
I invite you to open your heart and focus on giving the gifts of attention, appreciation, affection, and acceptance.