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Want to Be Happy? Help Others

Who among us doesn't want to be happier? The lightness of being that comes with finding joy in day-to-day activities, social connections and one's purpose on Earth are all important measures of human satisfaction, and most of us strive toward greater levels of happiness on the daily.

There are all sorts of approaches to happiness. Gretchen Rubin, for example, is notable for her work actively chasing down happiness: reviewing the latest scientific findings, reading the works of great philosophers and practicing those principles in her daily life. Some medical researchers seek to increase happiness by reducing conditions that get in the way, such as the Utah Depression Research team, which monitors brain chemistry through scans to try to determine the best ways to increase "good" chemistry and alleviate depression.

Service: Still in the Lead

One of the best ways to achieve greater happiness, research is beginning to show, is to be of service to others. We all know it feels good to do something nice for someone else. Holding a door, letting someone go ahead of you in the grocery line or spending the evening at the soup kitchen are all valuable for the spirit. However, good deeds may do more than give you a temporary boost for a day; people who routinely do them may actually be happier and have a higher quality of life than those who do not.

This is probably not a surprise to you. Service to fellow men and women has been a prime tenet of a life well-lived since the ancient times, but in our no-holds-barred, every-man-for-himself world, it's sometimes easy to forget this is the case … and to look elsewhere for that elusive contentment.

Happiness: Not Where You Think It Is

Perhaps surprisingly, long-held beliefs about what leads to happiness have not turned out to be significantly supported in research. For instance, according to findings by University of Utah researcher Luis Rayo in his and Gary Becker's report, Happiness, Income and Economic Quality, "Happiness surveys have failed to show a strong and robust link between income growth and average happiness." Of course, they point out, that doesn't mean that income growth isn't important; it just points to the fact that, most likely, we're better served cultivating happiness elsewhere.

Other studies—such as The Unsung Benefits of Material Things by Aaron C. Weidman and Elizabeth W. Dunn—indicate that while material purchases do bring happiness, and it is of a more frequent nature than experiential purchases, humans are made more intensely happy by experiences rather than things, even if the feelings arise less frequently. This could point to why people benefit so much from service: It is a true experience.

Service and Compassion: A Big Slice of the Happiness Pie

Gallup Poll data is pretty clear: People who regularly provide service to their communities have higher levels of wellbeing hands-down. The wellness scores of people who have received community recognition averages 70, while those who have not average 58.5. This disparity holds true in every age segment and for every household income bracket. The score is highest for adults 65 and over (a score of 73), but still quite high (68.6 and above) for all adults over the age of 19.

"While wealthier Americans typically have higher wellbeing than their lower-income counterparts," Gallup explains, "lower-income Americans who have received recognition for community work have a higher average index score than even the highest-income earners who have not received community recognition, at 67.2 vs. 62.6, respectively." It's hard to argue with the data: Service and happiness are irrevocably and powerfully linked.

Being in flow, moreover, is a good way to increase happiness. When you're in flow, you lose awareness of time, aren't plagued by unwelcome or stressful thoughts, and the activity seems to come effortlessly. Flow can also be applied to other activities, such as volunteering for others.

The benefits of volunteering are increasingly well supported in research. For instance, A prospective study of volunteerism and hypertension risk in older adults by Rodlescia S. Sneed and Sheldon Cohen shows that people older than 50 who volunteered on a regular basis were less likely to develop high blood pressure. As greater health is a known measure of greater happiness, regular service can thus be seen to contribute to both.

The Health Boosts of Service

"Positive emotions go a long way toward making you happier, improving your wellbeing and decreasing health problems. Since there is a strong link between service and happiness, giving your time to others can actually end up buying you more time in the end." — Bradley Weischedel, LCSW, University of Utah Health

Moreover, there is a strong link between service, happiness and health. Giving (and receiving) compassion can decrease stress and put your life in perspective, which can make you calmer and happier. By being happier, you can in turn commit to better health habits, which lower your chance of illness and increase your physical health over the long haul.

So would you like to learn more about health and wellness for yourself and your own family? It may just start with service for you. However, there are many other ways you can increase your own wellbeing and the wellbeing of those you love.