Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence”
-Aristotle, Greek philosopher
At a certain point in life, we all stop to ask ourselves a very important question: “What makes for a good life?”
The answers we receive seem as varied as the people who offer them. Writers, clergymen, philosophers- people from various walks of life- have sought a definitive conclusion for this age-old question for millennia, and in that quest, no matter how they approach the issue, there seems to be a word that comes up time and time again: happiness.
It’s almost impossible to speak of “the good life” without bringing up happiness, so much so that the two seem inextricably linked. And rightfully so: who amongst us doesn’t want to be happy? What human being doesn’t wish for a life filled with a deep sense of contentment and lasting internal peace? I think it is safe to say that the pursuit of happiness is one of the most universal human aspirations, regardless of cultural, religious or geographical contexts. Whether we live in Eritrea or Eswatini, Uruguay or the UK, we all have the same deep-seeded need. In fact, values like wealth, fame, power, glory, success, health, love, family and friendships, can all be considered branches of the same tree.
So, considering all the possible paths we can take in our pursuit of happiness, the question is which one do we choose? What is a life well lived?
This is exactly what a Harvard University study in the US has been trying to tackle for the past eight decades.
The Harvard study of adult development, or the Grant Study, is considered to be the longest longitudinal study of adult life ever done. Beginning in 1938 until the present, it involves the close observation of 724 men from their teenage years all the way to their nineties. The researchers closely follow the lives of these participants by regularly filling out questionnaires, conducting in-depth interviews, checking medical records, doing physical examinations, analyzing blood samples, brain scans and observing the men’s relationships with their families, friends and their communities. So after eighty years and “tens of thousands of pages worth of data”, what did they find?
In his TEDx talk, Harvard Medical School professor and fourth director of the Grant study, Robert Waldinger stated the most important findings:
People who have warm relationships- be it with their families, friends or their communities- are happier, physically healthier and live longer than people who don’t. And conversely, people who are more isolated than they’d like to be are less happy, their physical health declines in middle age, their brain functioning declines sooner and they live shorter lives. Professor Waldinger clarified that what matters is not the number of friends one has or whether or not one is in a committed relationship, but the quality of those relationships. In fact, the study found that the biggest predictor for a happy life in later age is how satisfied one feels with one’s relationships throughout the earlier stages of life. Moreover, good relationships seem to protect the brain: in the study, those who felt they could depend on their loved ones had sharper memories for longer than those who did not.
Now, one may read these findings and think, “Well, I sort of already knew that!” It’s true, common wisdom did already value our social relationships- but that never stopped us from looking for happiness in other places. We still yearn for wealth, fame and accomplishments like magical elixirs.
It’s important to note, of course, that this is still just the beginning: one study (albeit a very long one) can hardly provide an absolute answer to happiness. Many more studies would need to be conducted around the world to come to a general consensus- but the ones that have been done so far point to the same thing. Nevertheless, the value of the study cannot be denied; it sheds a scientific light on what was primarily a philosophical matter.
So, now that we have a clue, how do we get there?
Well, to answer that, let me refer to yet another TEDx talk, this one by a woman named Jacqueline Way.
Jacqueline, a mother of three boys, wanted to do everything in her power to raise her children to become “kind, compassionate and happy adults”. So, on her oldest son’s third birthday, she decided to start a project she called “365Give”. The premise goes something like this: every day for a year, she and her son had to do one small act of kindness toward a person, an animal or the environment. Naturally, there was some resistance at first. Jacqueline’s son is said to have looked at her in disbelief and said, “Mommy, how many days are in a year?!” already calculating the amount of effort it would require of him.
The tasks were varied: help out a friend, a neighbor, an elderly person or a stranger; donate old clothes, plant a tree, bake cookies for fire fighters to thank them for their service to the community, pick up garbage from the street or the beach. None of it was radical but all of it still mattered. With time, as Jacqueline stated, her son saw just how consequential his actions were and, sure enough, that initial resistance quickly morphed to resolve.
Seeing the changes in her own son, Jacqueline decided to write a blog about her project and before long, people from various parts of the world not only read her posts, but also began to do their very own “365 daily gives”. What was perhaps the most touching of all the emails Jacqueline received came from an elementary school teacher in Australia: after reading about the 365Give project online, the teacher decided to integrate it into her classroom curriculum, where all her students would be required to do one daily give a day. Slowly, 365Give became an educational program implemented in some schools and, as the saying goes, what was once a drop became a ripple.
So how does 365Give help with happiness, you ask? Well, the act of giving generally makes us feel gratified. When we see the genuine smile on the face of someone we’ve helped, we can’t help but smile back. We start to understand that our actions- big or small- can create a better world. We feel a surge of positivity and a rush of hormones like oxytocin and serotonin, causing a satisfying sensation commonly known as “helper’s high”: after all, our brains are hard-wired for social cooperation. And if this is not a good enough reason, imagine how much the habit of daily giving enhances the quality of our relationships and, ultimately (as the Harvard study states), our level of happiness. A win-win situation, if you ask me.
Listening to Jacqueline’s TEDx talk, I was reminded of a common saying in Tigrinya, “ጽቡቕ ግበር፡ ንመን? ንማንም” (a saying that expresses the importance of providing help indiscriminately). But more importantly, it reminded me how every one of us can be intentional in our actions- no matter how insignificant they may initially seem. And with that, I began mentally listing all the things I, or anyone, can do here in Eritrea: donate blood, reach out to an old friend, brew coffee for loved ones, help a stranger, smile at strangers (you never know who needs one), make food for the ill, offer comfort to the bereaved, give out pens to children, offer a free lesson to a student, help someone carry their load, visit the local orphanage with cake or presents, offer tea to the women who clean up the streets in our neighborhoods, let someone in a rush go before you in a queue, donate clothes to people who need it, plant a tree, strike up a friendly conversation, offer helpful (and solicited) advice, offer a compliment, mentor someone.
The list is endless.
What all this tells me is that happiness and “the good life” are only an action away. Happiness doesn’t really lie in grandeur: it isn’t found in grand gestures, grand lifestyles or grand achievements. Happiness lies in our connections with those around us. And what better way is there to show our appreciation for our loved ones than by giving?
To close, in the words of 19th century American poet Walt Whitman, “Happiness, not in another place, but this place….not for another hour, but this hour”
I wish you all happy lives.