Helping Others: A Sure Path to Happiness
Selfless service helps to purify the heart so that we come to feel more present and more at peace within ourselves and with the world around us.
Yogis have long understood the importance of helping others, understanding this virtue to be indispensable on the journey towards enlightenment. Karma yoga, one of the four main yogic paths, is the path of selfless service, rooted in the notion that actively helping others frees us of our egoic expectations of receiving something in return for our work. When we play an active role in assisting others, with expectations for return released, we move closer towards finding peace and happiness through a variety of underlying mechanisms.
Why Karma Yoga?
Karma yoga takes the notion of ‘helping others’ a step beyond what those two words allude to on the surface level; karma yoga deepens our altruistic actions by shining a light on our selfish desires. Many of us have helped others from time to time, but we do not often acknowledge where our actions are less than selfless. Often times, whether consciously or unconsciously, we expect that we will receive something in return for our good deeds. For example, we may knowingly or unknowingly hope for praise, love, recognition, or physical reward in return for our work. While these are all entirely natural desires that arise due to some aspect of our humanity, karma yoga deepens our self-inquiry by encouraging us to help others while releasing any of these hopes and expectations. Karma yoga purifies our intent.
But why karma yoga? Why should we practice helping others without expecting anything in return? Selfless service, as is illuminated within the path of karma yoga, helps to purify the heart so that we come to feel more present and more at peace within ourselves and with the world around us. When we act in altruistic ways while harbouring conscious or unconscious motives for this action, we are neither present with our actions, nor are we being entirely true in our intent. Karma yoga helps us to release all future projections, rooting ourselves compassionately and selflessly in the present moment.
How Helping Others Brings Happiness
There are countless reasons and mechanisms that help to explain why helping others increases our sense of inner happiness and contentment. This understanding is supported by both traditional spiritual knowledge as well as scientific findings that have helped to validate these ancient teachings.
1. Helping others reduces our stress responses.
Research has shown that offering support to others helps to lower our stress responses. In the study that looked at effects on the brain of those who gave and those who received support during a stress-related math task, brain imagery found that those who gave support to others had reduced stress-activity in the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, the anterior insula, and the amygdala. The group of researchers concluded that part of the reason why this finding may have occurred, is because providing support leads to increased self-efficacy, feelings of social connection, and happiness. Furthermore, when we lower our stress responses, we are able to engage more consciously and wholeheartedly with the world around us. This fuels further inspired action.
2. Helping others attracts energy of the same strain.
We attract what we put into the universe, or in other words, like attracts like. When we act selflessly in support of others, we are more likely to receive the same type of assistance in return. It’s not necessary that we expect others to give back in the same way; in fact, this expectation (as we now know) would be in contradiction to the basic principles of karma yoga. Without expecting anything in return, selfless action is more likely to attract compassion and assistance in return than if we were to refrain from helping others. Why? Because everything we do creates a ripple effect. With each selfless action we engage in, we inspire others (whether consciously or unconsciously) to exhibit the same strain of energy and therefore, to help those around them as well.
3. When we selflessly act in service of others, we become more intuitively aware of our interconnectedness.
Helping others selflessly helps us to release our egoic desires and connect deeply with the needs of those we are helping. As we connect with others in this heartfelt manner, we begin to understand that we all have the same needs, wishes, and desires, and that we are all deeply interconnected. We start to see ourselves in others, and others in ourselves, which provides us with a greater appreciation for and understanding of our human community. A 2010 study aimed to explore this idea. Findings of the research suggest that when we engage in actions that support others, these actions help to meet our basic psychological need for relatedness.
4. Helping others provides a sense of meaning.
When we support others, our sense of purpose and meaning increases. A study published in The Journal of Positive Psychology found that those who engage in more altruistic behaviours reported a greater sense of meaning in their lives. This is likely tied into the fact that helping others enhances our sense of connection and community, providing us with a perspective on life that transcends our limited, egoic outlooks. When our sense of meaning increases, we feel more at peace within the world around us.
5. Selfless service is a way of purifying the heart.
We cannot forget to acknowledge the energetic and spiritual wisdom that has been passed down through the ages since this is where this understanding began. Yogic teachings indicate that as we act in service of others, egotistic tendencies, hatred, jealousy, and self-righteousness begin to diminish. Because of this, karma yoga is understood to lead to infinite bliss, or to enlightenment. With each selfless action we exhibit, we move closer towards this inner sense of deep peace and happiness.
How to Selflessly Help Others
When we begin to explore selfless service, or helping others without expecting anything in return, we may run up against inner struggles and mental blocks that impede our ability to move forward wholeheartedly. As we practice giving to others in this way, it is important to maintain a sense of self-compassion and patience. Most of us were not raised to think and act selflessly – the majority of the world’s modern societies have not flourished on a foundation of interconnectedness and selfless service. We must learn to be patient with our unfolding process and compassionate with our conditioned mental tendencies.
We can consciously maintain an attitude of curiosity towards any ego-driven thoughts that arise when we help others. When these sorts of thoughts arise, we might compassionately inquire:
What is it that I am seeking in return here?
Can I release my expectations and personal needs for just this moment?
By releasing ideas about future fulfilment, can I commit to being entirely present?
Over time, the energy behind our actions will shift closer towards complete selflessness. If they are not quite at this stage yet, this is entirely normal. Continue to practice witnessing and releasing any ideas, expectations, and hopes that arise mid-action. By opening up from the heart space to those we are helping in any given moment, our sense of connection to everyone and everything around us begins to deepen. Our sense of connection to the universal energy that flows through our very own being begins to deepen too. As it does, we start to witness the peace, happiness, and true fulfilment that arises from within when we are in service of others.