The connection between happiness and virtue occurs again and again across time and cultures. Aristotle saw happiness as the result of cultivation and use of virtue, his golden mean was similar to the Buddhist middle way. Many of the readings in I Ching emphasize the importance of being “Blame free” and working for the good of all. Modern brain science confirms what the philosophers observed. The chemicals secreted when we are giving to others were the subject of an article in Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/vitality/201404/the-neuroscience-giving
I appreciated that the article treated smiling at another person as an act of kindness and it’s certainly the most available. I was about to call it the easiest but actually that wouldn’t be true. it takes some effort and a little courage to jump into another’s space and risk rebuff but if a person is willing to meet your eye they usually smile back. And the person who doesn’t see you at all has made they’re judgment known, and it wasn’t personal because they didn’t see you in the first place. When I give money to a beggar it’s more important to me to give them a chance to talk and be seen, the dollar is just an excuse to offer some compassion. I almost always feel good afterward. In terms of brain chemistry giving increases oxytocin (the cuddle chemical) primarily associated with mother/child bonding, which strengthens connections to others. This increases dopamine and serotonin. The resulting increase in empathy builds our ability to read the intentions of others, a powerful executive function. Not only does it feel good, it makes us smarter.
Other studies have shown we also stimulate endorphins when we are kind. The pleasure we feel keeps us doing it. The chemistry is there to keep us in harmony with others and recognize it as our own benefit. Could the rampant unhappiness in today’s world have to do with the culture’s encouragement of antagonism and judgment? Choosing targets responsible for our unhappiness rather than the roots in ourselves never solves the unhappiness. Judging others is just a way of pushing ourselves up a notch, an expression of the ego at the base of our suffering. But the more we judge others the more harshly we judge ourselves. The Buddha linked compassion to happiness, both in the ability to bring happiness to another and in the feelings generated by the encouraging brain chemistry.
Another way we give is through our work. Whatever it is, it is something we contribute. Finding something that absorbs our interest develops and strengthens the frontal cortex which is richly connected to the pleasure centers. In a ted talk, Elyn Sachs said the best defense against mental illness is an absorbing project. It’s confirmed by my own experience and my sense that happiness involves sending attention outward. The more attention we give the more it gives back.