by Tal Ben-Shahar

Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and then go and do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive. —Howard Thurman

Teaching is my calling. I teach executives in organizations, students in college, and at-risk youth in inner cities. I teach because it makes me happy, because it affords me present and future benefit, pleasure and meaning. I teach because I want to (because I love it), not because I feel I have to (out of some abstract sense of duty to others).

In other words, I am no altruist. The ultimate reason that I do anything—whether it is spending time with my friends or doing work for charity—is that it makes me happy. The ultimate currency (happiness), in theory and in practice, is the end toward which all of my actions lead.

The idea that our actions should be guided by self-interest, by our own happiness, can make some people uneasy. The source of their unease is a belief—explicit or implicit—in the morality of duty.

Immanuel Kant, the influential eighteenth-century German philosopher, tells us that for an act to have moral worth, it must be undertaken out of a sense of duty. When we act out of self-interest, then, we preclude the possibility of our action being a moral one. According to Kant, if a person helps another because he feels inclined to do so—because it makes him happy—what he does has no moral value.

Most of those philosophies and religions that advocate self-sacrifice as the foundation of morality, as Kant does, assume that acting in one’s self-interest inevitably leads to acting against the interests of others—that if we do not fight our selfish inclinations, we will hurt others and disregard their needs.

What this worldview fails to acknowledge, however, is that we do not need to make a choice between helping others and helping ourselves. They are not mutually exclusive possibilities. In fact, as the philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson explains, “It is one of the most beautiful compensations of this life that no man can sincerely try to help another without helping himself.” Helping oneself and helping others are inextricably intertwined; the more we help others, the happier we become, and the happier we become, the more inclined we are to help others.

Think back to a time you helped someone. Try to re-experience the emotions you felt.

Contributing to other people’s happiness provides us with meaning and pleasure, which is why helping others is one of the essential components of a happy life. Of course it is important to keep in mind the distinction between helping others and living for others’ happiness. If we do not make the pursuit of our own happiness a priority, we are hurting ourselves and, by extension, our inclination to help others. An unhappy person is less likely to be benevolent—and that leads to further unhappiness.

Research by Barbara Fredrickson suggests that positive emotions broaden the scope of our attention. When we’re happy, then, we are more likely to see beyond our narrow, inward-looking, and self-centered perspective and focus on others’ needs and wants. Research by Alice Isen and Jennifer George illustrates that we are more likely to help others when we feel good.

We often enhance our happiness to the greatest extent when we pursue activities that provide us with meaning and pleasure and that help others. When making choices, we first need to ask ourselves what would make us happy independent of how much it might contribute to the happiness of others. We must then ask ourselves whether what we want to do would deprive others of their ability to pursue their own happiness—because if it would, we would be undermining our happiness. Our empathic inclinations, our innate sense of justice, inevitably lead us to pay the price in the ultimate currency when we hurt people.

For those who subscribe to the morality of duty, finding meaning—leading a moral life—necessitates sacrifice. Sacrifice, by definition, is not pleasurable (if it were, it would no longer be sacrifice). The morality of duty, therefore, pits meaning and pleasure against each other.

Happiness is not about sacrifice, about a trade-off between present and future benefit, between meaning and pleasure, between helping ourselves and helping others. It is about synthesis, about creating a life in which all of the elements essential to happiness are in harmony.

This post is excerpted from Happier: Learn the Secrets to to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment, by Tal Ben-Shahar, PhD. Copyright ©2007, The McGraw-Hill Companies. Reprinted with permission from the publisher.
Learn more about happiness and positive psychology in The Certificate in Positive Psychology with Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar.

Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar, Co-founder of WholeBeing Institute, is an author and lecturer who taught the largest course at Harvard on “Positive Psychology” and the third largest on “The Psychology of Leadership”—with a total of over 1,400 students. Author of Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment, he consults and lectures around the world to corporate executives, the general public, and at-risk populations on topics that include happiness, self-esteem, resilience, goal setting, mindfulness, and leadership. He holds a doctorate in organizational behavior and a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and psychology from Harvard.