I repeat this phrase a lot to my friends: you have to be happy before you make someone else happy. So often I hear of people unsuccessfully trying to make someone else happy. They give and give and give, but nothing seems to work. They actually believe that the more they sacrifice, the more it shows they care, even though it couldn’t be further from the truth.
You can give all you want, but you can’t give something that you don’t already have. If you haven’t achieved happiness for yourself, then how could you possibly help someone else achieve their happiness? It’s impossible. You may be able to provide some short-term pleasure, but you can’t teach someone something that you have no understanding of.
When it comes to first achieving happiness for yourself, I’m reminded of the lecture they often give on airplanes about oxygen masks. They always tell you that in times of emergency you should put your oxygen mask on first, then help your neighbors put on their masks. The reasoning is simple: if you don’t put on your oxygen mask first, you suffer a greater likelihood of dying; and you can’t help anyone once you’re dead.
In the same way, you can’t make someone happy if you’re depressed. You have to take care of yourself first before taking care of others. Anything else is a recipe for disaster for the both of you. Some may even try to do charitable things with the expectation that it will automatically make them and the other person happy. But, while doing good things for people can increase your own well-being, if you don’t do it from the right place – with the right intentions – then you won’t get the long-term gratification. Especially if you are helping someone just for your own sake (because you expect it will make you happy), then the warmness of the act is lost, and your pleasure from doing the act will be minimal at best. Helping others feels best when you genuinely want to help others.
Now let’s say you have already achieved happiness. Now you are in a much better position to help someone else achieve their own happiness. When you walk into a room and light it up with joy, other people catch that like an infection. When you share your stories and advice with enthusiasm, people will begin to perk up their ears and actually listen to you. And when people see you standing up for your beliefs and achieving your goals and values, they are more motivated to do the same for themselves. You become a role model.
Still, nothing is guaranteed. You can’t change anyone without their permission. And some people just aren’t willing to permit themselves to be happy no matter what. Like I described in my post The Desire To Change People: we can try to talk with someone, reason with them, encourage them, or lead by example, but if someone isn’t open to learning something new, they won’t learn it. People have their own sense of free will, so we can’t always change them to think and feel how we want them to think and feel. That’s an important limitation to acknowledge (even if we don’t know exactly where the line is drawn). Of course, I don’t want to discourage you from helping others, but I want you to know that there is a point where it may be best to cut your losses and walk away. Some people can be emotional leeches, they depend on your pity in order to manipulate you. It’s sad, but some people don’t want to be happy simply because they don’t want to take action or take responsibility. They want someone else to do all the work for them, but that too is impossible.
Learn more about happiness and relationships in The Science of Self Improvement.