Why does it make us happy to do good things for others?

In 2012 I was well into my career with a very demanding litigation group at an international law firm.  The most demanding partner of all took me and another associate to an uncharacteristic casual, non-working lunch.  This partner liked to engage people in challenging intellectual questions even in casual settings.  
This day he asked whether it didn’t seem that the whole idea of superego and id might be wrong because the things that we are “supposed” to do actually are the ones that make us happy.  Why does it make us happy to do good things for others?

What the partner was saying exactly dovetails what Yoga teaches .  Here’s what I’ve thought about it since then, and then we can see about what Yoga really teaches:

I think that the goal of yoga is to come to know the true self, which is in a sense universal, and through that knowing to achieve peace, happiness, and equanimity.  One way to come to know the true self is to practice compassion.  I think maybe that’s true for 2 reasons: 1) the true self is designed to connect with others to work together — we’re pack animals, after all — so connecting with, understanding, and helping another person is deep in our nature and practing that part of our nature helps us connect to our true self.  2) compassion involves learning about another person’s will, needs, and desires.  SInce our brains are designed to categorize things, as we see these things in someone else, we automatically recognize how they are similar to or different from our own will, needs and desires, and our brains automatically highlight the commonalities — since the true self is in a sense universal, understanding common needs and desires helps us come closer to the true self.

But why does this make us happy too?

Well, I originally thought maybe it’s because coming closer to our true self makes us happy.  That’s true, but it’s more of a peaceful kind of bliss.  So you do get that.  But there’s a simpler explanation: Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – pack animals — anything we do that makes us feel helpful to another person is going to make us happy in the same way that bringing a child a toy or opening a door makes our dog wag her tail.  So both explanations are true.  Also, just any sense of connectedness, of being together with another person and sharing an experience, will make us happy — especially when that person is a stranger.  Why is that?  Maybe for the reasons discussed above — that learning about the hopes and cares of a new person gives us deper insight into what it means to be human and to live in the word. 

In a deeper sense there is a  spark that is in all of us, our will, and that it is so unknowable and awesome that you can study it forever.   Compassion is a religious exercise because it helps us understand this will / spark of divinity that is in all of us, and thus to start to understand how will gets corrupted as it is translated into action.
To stop that corruption is to understand the true self.  And that’s Yoga.


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