Our connections with fellow humans — either fleeting or lasting for many decades — are the sine qua non of happiness (ie, without relationships with others, there is no happiness, and that’s about it for my 8th grade Latin). Simultaneously, these connections can be vexing, painful, or unpleasantly surprising. However, because we do in fact need each other, it makes sense to heed the Dalai Lama’s advice when it comes to our interactions with others.
This is the advice I have in mind, from one of the Dalai Lama’s books I read years ago: in every interaction we have, we can make the other person happier, or less happy. That is powerful. Every single time we make a human connection, we can either add to or decrease the other person’s happiness.
Not that we are responsible for others’ happiness entirely. But it is quite a moral responsibility when put in those terms.
And, it may also be highly practical, because, well, you never know.
Let me tell you a little story, one of my favorites. I’m quite pleased to find a happiness hook that gives me an excuse to share it.
The story takes place way back in 1968, when I was 14 years-old. I was third of six kids, and we didn’t have a lot of money. So the fact that I was by myself in our living room, listening to the Beatles’ Sargent Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album was unusual. I loved that album, which I bought with hard-earned babysitting money. Loved, loved. I was happily singing along with all my blissed-out teenage heart when a friend of my oldest sister walked through the room. Let’s call him Paul. Paul was handsome, witty, charismatic. I had a bit of an unrequited crush on him. When Paul paused at the front door and turned to speak to me, I was all a flutter, thrilled that he was stooping to talk to me!
“Do you know my definition of stupid?” he asked.
“No,” I quickly replied. “What is it?”
“People who sing along to the Beatles,” he responded before turning around and exiting my house.
All these years later, I can’t quite remember how little and unworthy that remark made me feel. Instead, this story has become a family joke. You see, just three years later, I married Paul’s younger brother Bob. When Paul made that offhand remark to me, he could never possibly have imagined that I would be his sister-in-law for, oh, just about 45 years so far — and that I would never let him forget that brief interaction!
Not that I blame the funny, self-assured 18 year-old that he was then. It was a long, long time ago, and that moment in time has been superseded by many another loving and supportive word or act (like driving Bob and me to the hospital to have our first baby, and doing Ed Sullivan imitations along the way).
No, the reason I love this story is, it clearly shows, when we connect with people, making them happier or less happy, we have no idea what roles we might play in each other’s lives in the future. So being nice is both good common sense, and good karma sense.
Consider the case posted on Twitter last month about an angry man who cursed at another commuter on London’s Tube. Not only did the angry man add to someone else’s unhappiness in the moment — he added to his own. He arrived at a job interview a little while later and discovered that the man he had just cussed at was the interviewer. He did not get the job.
That’s a very graphic — and karmic — illustration of how interactions can affect our own happiness as well. As Donovan so beautifully warbled many years ago, happiness runs in a circular motion.
It’s also interesting to think about what might have happened if the angry man in the Tube had somehow connected with the interviewer in a more positive way during their commutes. Perhaps he would have gotten the job? Perhaps they would have had an ongoing, positive relationship?
Certainly, connections do not need to be lengthy to be significant. Two summers ago, I was wearing one of my favorite dresses (very happy, covered in blue daisies) as I walked toward the library. A woman I had never seen before, or since, was walking in the opposite direction. As she neared me, she said, “You look very nice today, ma’am.” That’s all. But she made me smile, and feel good. I beamed a very genuine, “Thank you!” in her direction.
Certainly I’ve been on the proactive side of the equation many times. Recently, while vacationing with our cute-as-a-button two year old grandchild, we sang to and for total strangers in an open-hearted way that is hard to imagine without an innocent babe involved. We were received in the same open-hearted way, again no doubt thanks to our granddaughter’s presence. Otherwise, we grown ups aren’t normally this sweet to folks we don’t know.
That’s kinda sad.
In The Gifts of Imperfection, Brene Brown defines “connection as the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, hear, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.” She also states, “we are wired for connection. It’s in our biology. From the time we are born, we need connection to thrive emotionally, physically, spiritually, and intellectually.”
Even without cute babies, strangers can give that to each other. Tal Ben-Shahar tells a story of an early, early morning at an airport, a morning at the start of a long flight, a morning when he was not at his happiest — until a woman who worked at the airport bestowed a warm and kind smile on him. That brief but genuine connection cheered him up so much, he continues to tell the story year after year as part of his lecture on making the choice to smile more often. I love it. Done judiciously, it’s such an easy win-win.
Of course, our most meaningful connections are found in relationships of longer duration — but every relationship has to start somewhere. Some connections we’re born into. Most, we have to establish. I remember the beginning of my friendships with two of my dearest friends in Vermont, Judy and Eric. We had lived here only a few weeks, and I felt lost among the many happy strangers at the Maple Corner Fourth of July bash — until this kind and interesting couple took the time to chat with me, the newcomer, the stranger. None of us knew that a deep and abiding friendship was being born. I was just grateful that these two were being nice to me, seeing, hearing, and valuing me. Connection.
It’s all about the nice, within limits. The point is to add to the world’s supply of happiness — yours included. As a recent meme on Facebook put it, “you are not required to provide heat to others by setting yourself on fire.” Sometimes the best we can do is not infect others with our glumness.
There is also the question of authenticity. Who are you? What is the best way for you to make connections — deeper connections with loved ones, new and even one-time connections with strangers? Who may or may not end up married to someone in your family. Or giving you a job.
For most of us, it would be inauthentic to like the man in the photo, a fellow visitor to Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York last September. He wasn’t on staff, he wasn’t leading any workshops — he just wanted to give hugs. He was so sensitive about it, too. No one got a hug who didn’t want one. He just wore this sign while he was there, and hugged whoever responded.
They were good hugs, too. Oh, yes, I took advantage of this opportunity to connect. He made me happier. He made lots of people happier.
That is my aspiration, too — I want to make lots of people happier. It’s a choice we all can make, each of us in our own style.
Good common sense. Good karma sense. Just plain good.