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Happiness, Self-Sacrifice and the Higher Purpose

3 minute read

I was on a crowded bus the other day when a harried, sweating mother boarded, loaded with shopping bags and with her child in tow. A man immediately got up and offered her his seat. I told him I thought that was a very nice thing to do. He replied “It made me happy to do this.”

On the surface, there’s nothing remarkable about this. But it’s actually quite odd that this man was able to make himself feel good by — in effect — making himself feel bad. The physical discomfort he opted for gave him psychological comfort.

Yet if we look around, the world is full of instances of people sacrificing for others. At one extreme you can see Mother Theresa living a life of physical deprivation in order to bring some comfort into the lives of desperately poor, or Nelson Mandela giving up 27 years of freedom to bring justice to his nation. At the other extreme are suicide bombers ending their lives for a cause that means everything to them. And everything in between: A corporate warrior putting in long hours in the office, parents giving up personal comforts in order to give their children the best, people devoting their free time to volunteering in religious organizations, soldiers risking their lives for their comrades and their cause.

There’s certainly an evolutionary reason for this. Any primate that isn’t a member of a group would not survive very long, and any group whose members aren’t particularly devoted to the group’s welfare also wouldn’t survive long. Natural selection (for those who do not believe in Creationism) has ensured that human beings are oriented toward belonging to groups.

What does this mean for how we should live our lives? We’re often told that happiness is up to us, that we need to take time for ourselves, to self-care, to treat ourselves well. And certainly, getting enough sleep, eating well, exercising and ensuring we’re not a doormat for others are very important. But the focus on ourselves, rather than our groups, is limited and ultimately unfulfilling.

Finding meaning in life means devoting ourselves to something bigger than ourselves. Perhaps that’s a religious organization, a school, a political party or a company. It might be something closer to home, maybe one’s nuclear or extended family. It could be a cause, such as global warming, protecting children from abuse, or eliminating poverty. When we put something or someone else ahead of ourselves, we gain something enormously valuable in return: the knowledge that our lives are worthwhile and have meaning. And if you don’t believe that, just look at the lives of the idle rich, and their rates of addiction, depression and suicide.

And yet…this is not a simple prescription for happiness. Because when we devote ourselves to something bigger than ourselves, the needs of that ‘something bigger’ take precedence over our own. And at some point in time, unless we’re lucky, we are no longer needed, or useful, or effective, and we find ourselves sidelined, ejected or defeated. We devote our lives to our company, and then have to retire. We sacrifice ourselves for our children, who become independent and no longer need our sacrifice. We invest energy and emotion into our religious group and find ourselves sidelined. We throw ourselves into causes and make little or no headway. To quote a cynical British politician, “All political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure, because that is the nature of politics and of human affairs.”

So we are caught in a dilemma: if we commit ourselves to something bigger, we will likely find ourselves on the outside of it at some point, but if we choose not to commit, we condemn ourselves to a life of limited meaning and significance.

But there really is no choice. We must, for the sake of our own happiness, put the needs of something or someone else above our own. And having done so, having lived a meaningful life, we may then accept with equanimity the fact that the purpose that drives us may someday move on without us.


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