What a powerful question!
Before you read my answer below, I’d really like to hear what is most important in YOUR life.
If you like, please leave me your answer to this question as a comment below.
What’s Most Important In My Life
Put simply, what is most important in my life is cultivating the ability to help people be happy, and to relieve them of the suffering they experience. My No. 1 aspiration in life is to leave each person I interact with at least a little bit better off than I found them.
Sometimes this means taking a lot of time to help someone. Many times it means simply making eye contact and smiling to others as they walk by.
This effort is so important to me because I have become acutely aware of how much pain I feel when I have done things that contribute to the suffering of other people, and how much joy I feel when I help someone to be happy and/or suffer less.
The ability to help people be happy and suffer less is what I call true love, which I think has three essential components: kindness, compassion, and equanimity.
True Love Is Not a Feeling
Most people refer to love as a feeling. And the word is used equally for people and things, including hamburgers and pizza. We’ve all heard someone say, “I love pizza,” right? I believe that what they’re referring to is not love, but liking someone or something, and/or feeling passion, or desire.
I see love not as a feeling, but as an ability — the ability to respond to people, and all of life, with kindness, compassion, and equanimity.
Kindness is the ability and effort to respond to someone in a way that makes them happy.
Compassion is the aspiration to understand and help relieve someone of the suffering they experience.
Equanimity is the ability to be kind and compassionate to all beings, without bias, whether we like them or not.
Training for True Love
Although there is an almost endless list to the benefits of practicing mindfulness, cultivating true love has been the principal motivation for my practice. The insight that comes from the continued practice of mindfulness — that we are not the ego but that which is aware of the ego — gradually reduces how selfish we are.
True love — kindness, compassion, and equanimity — is the natural result of being less attached to the ego.
The Benefits of True Love
Cultivating true love is probably the most powerful thing we can do to increase our own happiness. Arianna Huffington just posted a great article on the abundance of evidence for how true love improves our own life.
In addition to improving our own life, I truly believe that training for true love is the most important thing we can do to “save the world,” to end suffering permanently.
I’ve realized that if I can uproot selfishness in me, I am free from suffering and I realize true love. I can also help others to uproot selfishness, be free of suffering and realize true love. If they can do it, they can help others.
Imagine what the world would be like if everyone was free from selfishness and suffering and capable of true love in each moment. There would be no wars, no one would go without food and shelter, and no one would be lonely in moments of pain.
Aware of the fact that each moment I practice mindfulness is taking us one step closer to a world free of suffering makes each moment of my life feel incredibly meaningful.
What’s most important in your life? How often do you remind yourself of what’s most important?
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This disconnect is unfortunate, though. It comes from a somewhat misguided view that gratitude is all about looking backward — back to what has already been. But in reality, that’s not how gratitude truly works. At a psychological level, gratitude isn’t about passive reflection, it’s about building resilience. It’s not about being thankful for things that have already occurred and, thus, can’t be changed; it’s about ensuring the benefits of what comes next. It’s about making sure that tomorrow, and the day after, you will have something to be grateful for.
One of the central findings to emerge from psychological science over the past decade is that certain emotions serve socially adaptive functions. When we experience emotions like compassion, admiration, and shame, they drive us to alter our behaviors toward others. As Adam Smith intuited long ago, these innate feelings, or moral sentiments, impel us to act in ways that benefit our fellow humans — to engage with them in behaviors that foster the common good. And in the case of gratitude, the evidence couldn’t be clearer. In the face of loss, tragedy, or disaster, few psychological mechanisms can do more to benefit an individual’s or a society’s ability to thrive.
Much research, including from my own lab, confirms that gratitude toward someone for past assistance increases the odds that we’ll return the favor and help a benefactor in need. That’s fine, but in the case of many types of challenges, pairing previous benefactors and recipients isn’t an easy or efficient process. There are lots of people — those dealing with the flooding in Colorado or those struggling to put food on their tables, for example — that need help immediately. What is required for people and societies to recover rapidly, then, are mechanisms that make people help others they don’t know well — mechanisms that push people to pay it forward to strangers.
This is where the power of gratitude really resides. Its benefits come from an ability to create cooperation and support out of thin air. In my lab, we’ve shown this using a simple framework. We stage events where individuals experience a problem and then have someone come to their aid just when it looked as if all hope were lost. The result? Lots of gratitude toward the fixer. But that’s not the interesting part. It’s what happens next that is the surprise. When these newly-grateful souls subsequently run into strangers who ask for help, they not only more readily agree to aid them than do individuals who weren’t feeling grateful, but also expend a lot more effort in the act of helping itself. The more gratitude people feel, the more likely it is they’ll help anyone, even if it’s someone they’ve never laid eyes on before.
These benefits aren’t limited to direct face-to-face encounters. Given the option, grateful people will make financial decisions that “lift all boats” even when offered options to increase their own profit at another’s expense. In these times, where the click of a button can move funds to anywhere in the world where they’re needed, gratitude-induced giving can have a powerful effect.
Such occurrences of indirect reciprocity — the extending of help to new people — is known to kick cooperation in a group into high gear. In the face of individual or societal tragedies, then, any phenomenon that can enhance such indiscriminate paying-it-forward stands as a key to resilience.
So next time you have the opportunity to say “thank you,” don’t let it ring hollow. Embrace the gratitude; feel it as deeply as you can, because in so doing, you’re actually increasing the odds that in the future we’ll all have more for which to be grateful. On the deepest, unconscious level, gratitude is really about being grateful for the actions that are yet to come.
*Adapted from an op-ed by the author for the Boston Globe
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