I have a friend who lives by the philosophy, “Help everyone around me be happy, and that way I’ll be happy, too.” I conveyed this idea to another person, who responded with, “That’s a terrible idea, because you can’t rely on another person for your happiness.” Well, right. But my friend was not saying she can’t be happy unless everyone else is happy, too. There’s another way to look at this, which is rooted in Buddhism.
To be as happy as the Buddha was rumored to be, see all beings as equals (upeksa), recognize our interdependence (shunyata), and eliminate clinging to the concept of yourself as a separate, independant person. If you can do those things (easier said than done of course), then putting others first will come naturally.
If you don’t believe that putting others first can make you happier than you would be otherwise, try it for yourself.
A couple of years ago I needed to have an MRI of my brain, which required me to hold still for thirty minutes while a cascading racket of special MRI noises (blended with 80s pop songs they piped in) filled my ears. It didn’t take long for me to get a crick in my neck and feel like there was no way I was going to sustain this. Then I thought of my daughter. I thought of how she deserved to have a Mama while she grew up, and if I didn’t hold still, they might not get a good picture of my brain and then who knows what could happen? Thinking of her gave me the strength of will to hold still with purpose. (And luckily there was no brain tumor).
A nice way to practice putting others first is to donate your birthday. Because if you are like most people, you have a certain expecatation, conscious or not, that everyone will treat you like royalty on your birthday. You’ll be treated, dined, wined, whatever you want. Lots of cards, gifts, phone calls, etc. And the reality is no matter how much of that you get, it’s easy to feel like it just wasn’t quite enough. I’ve donated my birthday this year, and you can help out if you feel inspired.
So try this when you wake up on your birthday (or any day, really). Set the expection that you will do as much good for other beings as you can that day. Smile at people, do favors for them, cook a meal for others, give money to a person on the street. See how much better you feel at the end of the day.