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The pursuit of selfish versus altruistic happiness

By Matthieu Ricard on August 27, 2011

Developing our own positive inner qualities is the best way to help others in a more effective way. At the beginning, our personal experience is our only reference point. Our personal, self-centered experience, which tells us that we don't want to suffer, can become the basis for a much larger point of view that includes all beings. We are all dependent on each other and we all aspire to happiness. It would be absurd (if not impossible) to feel happy while countless other beings all around us are miserable. Seeking happiness for oneself alone is doomed to failure, since self-centeredness is a major source of our discontent. Even if we display all the outward signs of happiness, we cannot be truly happy if we fail to take an interest in the happiness of others. Altruistic love and compassion are the foundations of genuine happiness.

These remarks are not intended to be moralistic; they simply reflect reality. Seeking happiness selfishly is a sure way to make yourself, or anyone else, unhappy. Some people might think that the smartest way to guarantee their own well-being is to isolate themselves from others and to work hard at their own happiness, without consideration for what other people are experiencing. They probably assume that if everybody did that, we'd all be happy. But the result would be exactly the opposite: instead of being happy, they would be torn between hope and fear, make their own lives miserable, and ruin the lives of the people around them too. In the end, just ‟looking out for number one” is a losing proposition for everybody. One of the fundamental reasons such an approach is doomed is that the world is not made up of independent entities endowed with intrinsic properties that make them by nature beautiful or ugly, friends or enemies. Things and beings are essentially interdependent and in a constant state of transformation. The very elements that compose them only exist in relationship to each other. The self-centered approach of the ego continually runs afoul of this reality and only succeeds in creating frustration.

Altruistic love—also called loving-kindness— is the wish that others be happy and that they find the true causes of happiness. Compassion is defined as the desire to put an end to the suffering of others and the causes of that suffering. These are not merely noble sentiments; they are feelings that are fundamentally in tune with reality. All beings want to avoid suffering just as much as we do. Moreover, since we are all interdependent, our own happiness and unhappiness are intimately bound up with the happiness and unhappiness of others. Cultivating love and compassion is a win-win situation.

Personal experience shows that they are the most positive of all mental states and create a deep sense of fulfillment and wholesomeness. Research in neuroscience also indicates that among all kinds of meditations, those focusing on unconditional love and compassion give rise to the strongest activation of brain areas related to positive affects. In addition, the behavior these forms of meditation give rise to is intended to benefit others

If the deeds we perform for the sake of others are to have the intended benefit, they must also be guided by wisdom—the wisdom that we can acquire through analysis and meditation and that gives us a more correct understanding of reality. The ultimate reason for meditating is to transform ourselves in order to be better able to transform the world. To put it another way, we transform ourselves so that we can become better human beings and serve others in a wiser and more effective way.