Comer: Finding happiness through charity
Most of the time, I think it would be fair to say I’m a pretty happy person. When I was younger, my dad gave me the nickname “Smilin’ Ryan,” and I was often considered — maybe sometimes excessively, if you ask my oldest brother and mission president — to be someone who liked to joke around and have fun.
But, just like most people, there are moments (more as I’ve gotten older) where I must admit I’m just not very cheerful. Maybe someone says something, or says something in a certain way, or behaves in a certain way, and happiness leaves me. Sometimes, it can be a real struggle to overcome that unhappiness.
It could be easy to dismiss this. Everyone has moments of unhappiness. What’s the big deal? Trust me, I’ve said that to myself many times. But as I have it impressed on my soul to a greater degree that the purpose of this life on earth is to become more and more like Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ, the more dissatisfied I become with these moments — sometimes prolonged moments — of unhappiness.
In a previous article, I talked about choosing to be happy and never allowing ourselves to become comfortable with misery. For the purposes of this article, I wanted to discuss a lesson I learned this week on something practical we all can do to increase our happiness: charity.
Twice this week, I stumbled upon talks from BYU devotionals that emphasized the importance and benefits of charity.
On Monday night, I came across a talk by Larry R. Lawrence, a General Authority Seventy for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, at a BYU devotional on March 8, 2016. The talk was titled “Choose Happiness.” Elder Lawrence shared many important thoughts in his speech, but one that especially captured my attention was a quote from former president of the church David O. McKay.
“Start out to make somebody else happy and see how quickly your own soul is filled with joy,” he quoted McKay as saying.
I know this is a true principle. I have noticed in my life that whenever I endeavor to make someone else happy, my own soul is filled with joy. This isn’t always easy. It’s easy to get wrapped up in our own problems and not think of helping others. We incorrectly think that we can’t afford to spend time doing things for others when we ourselves are busy, when the truth is we can’t afford not to.
Thankfully, I have two natural opportunities at home (my two boys) to serve more. I was amused by Kristen Oaks, who is married to President Dallin H. Oaks of the First Presidency in the church, and comments she made recently at a Worldwide Devotional for Young Adults.
“When I was single, I always looked for opportunities to serve,” she began. “Now, every night at dinner, my service project is sitting directly across from me. It’s true.”
During his talk, Elder Lawrence shared an anecdote that resonated with me as a football fan, and it demonstrated what happens when we focus on making other people happy.
“Several years ago, there was an inspiring story in a popular sports magazine about a professional football player named Deion Branch. He was a wide receiver for the New England Patriots for 11 years, and during that time he played in three Super Bowls.
“The article pointed out that many professional football players go out drinking and get ‘hammered’ in the days leading up to the Super Bowl. They find various ways to deal with the stress, and many of these ways are not praiseworthy.
“But Branch had a different way of preparing himself for the big game in 2005. He picked up his phone and called every coach he had ever had. He called his junior college coaches. He called his high school coaches. He even sought out the phone numbers of his Pee Wee coaches and reached out to them. He made 13 phone calls in all.
“He called these men to say thank you: ‘Thank you for caring about me (enough to teach me). Thank you for making me run stairs. Thank you for believing I could do this.’ He thanked his college coach for not giving up on him when his grades were bad. Branch stood only 5 feet, 9 inches tall, so he thanked his high school coach for never saying that he was too small to play football.
“These phone conversations were very meaningful to his coaches, but they also invigorated Branch. He felt so motivated that he played his very best, leading his team to victory. He was named the most valuable player of the Super Bowl in 2005.”
Do we not, like Branch, feel invigorated when we do nice things for others? I know I do. My spirit is lifted, I no longer am weighed down by whatever is bothering me and I feel the emotional boost necessary to cheerfully continue with whatever my tasks are.
The second talk I came across was by Arthur C. Brooks, a noted Harvard professor, social scientist and author. In April 2009, he gave a devotional at BYU titled “Why Giving Matters.” In his address, he explained how giving helps people. He said:
“In the late 1980s, there was a famous study of charitable giving that looked at how people reacted with respect to the endorphins that they experienced. Endorphins are neurochemicals that make you feel a sort of euphoria. If you like to run marathons, it’s probably because afterward you feel really good — you feel sort of high in a way. Psychologists came forth with studies that showed that when people volunteer to help other people, they get what they call ‘the helper’s high.’ Volunteering actually gives people a mild sense of euphoria.”
Brooks went on to state other observations from studies about those who give, such as that they have decreased stress levels, are more likely to be recognized as leaders, have better health and are better citizens.
“It goes on and on,” Brooks said. “The bottom line is this: Givers are healthier, happier and richer in this country — and probably around the world. It gives us stronger communities; indeed, it gives us a more prosperous nation.”
Brooks then tied those conclusions to an observation of Utahns being happy. Earlier in his address, he said that after a comparison of states, he figured out that Utah was the most charitable state in the United States, with people giving approximately double the second-leading state.
“It’s practicing faith,” said Brooks, who it’s important to note is not a Latter-day Saint but a Roman Catholic who he says takes his faith seriously. “The No. 1 characteristic of those who give in this country is that they practice a faith. Of people who practice their faith regularly — which is to say, they attend worship services every week — 91% give to charity each year. Of people who don’t attend every week, 66% do. This translates into millions and millions of people who are healthier, happier and more prosperous than their neighbors, and it charts back to a lot of their religious experiences.”
“There are two ways to explain this link between God and giving. Explanation No. 1: You’re better people. That’s not a very Christian explanation. Explanation No. 2: You’ve been given a special gift — the gift of giving. Now I’m going to ask you to take a pretty sophisticated understanding here of charitable giving. As Christian people, we are taught that giving is important to help others. I’m telling you that the data say giving helps you, so if you want to help others, don’t just give to them — think about what you can do today to help somebody else to give. The main beneficiary of a charitable gift is the giver him- or herself.
“Let me summarize that. What do the data tell me as a Christian man? They tell me that I am the big beneficiary of my own giving, that people similar to me who take their faith seriously are the beneficiaries because we tend to give a lot. We’ve been taught to do what is right, and we are reaping the reward.”
With this past Tuesday being the anniversary of the martyrdoms of founder and first president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum, I feel I would be remiss not to share an example from Joseph Smith’s life of charity. In the book titled “Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith,” there’s a story of an Englishman named James Leach who arrived in Nauvoo, Illinois, with his sister (a convert to the church) and her husband. Their names were Agnes and Henry Nightingale. After unsuccessfully looking for work, James and Henry decided to ask Joseph Smith for help. Leach explained what happened next:
“We … found (the prophet) in a little store selling a lady some goods. This was the first time I had had an opportunity to be near him and get a good look at him. I felt there was a superior spirit in him. He was different to anyone I had ever met before; and I said in my heart, he is truly a Prophet of the most high God.
“As I was not a member of the Church I wanted Henry to ask him for work, but he did not do so, so I had to. I said, ‘Mr. Smith, if you please, have you any employment you could give us both, so we can get some provisions?’ He viewed us with a cheerful countenance, and with such a feeling of kindness, said, ‘Well, boys, what can you do?’ We told him what our employment was before we left our native land.
“Said he, ‘Can you make a ditch?’ I replied we would do the best we could at it. ‘That’s right, boys,’ and picking up a tape line, he said, ‘Come along with me.’
“He took us a few rods from the store, gave me the ring to hold, and stretched all the tape from the reel and marked a line for us to work by. ‘Now, boys,’ said he, ‘can you make a ditch three feet wide and two and a half feet deep along this line?’
“We said we would do our best, and he left us. We went to work, and when it was finished I went and told him it was done. He came and looked at it and said, ‘Boys, if I had done it myself it could not have been done better. Now come with me.’
“He led the way back to his store, and told us to pick the best ham or piece of pork for ourselves. Being rather bashful, I said we would rather he would give us some. So he picked two of the largest and best pieces of meat and a sack of flour for each of us, and asked us if that would do. We told him we would be willing to do more work for it, but he said, ‘If you are satisfied, boys, I am.’
“We thanked him kindly, and went on our way home rejoicing in the kindheartedness of the Prophet of our God.”
That year, Leach was baptized. He said he “often had the privilege of seeing (the Prophet’s) noble face lit up by the Spirit and power of God.”
Joseph Smith’s charitable attitude made a difference and left an impression, but notice what else about him left an impression: his “cheerful countenance” and “such a feeling of kindness” in his voice.
Charity truly does result in happiness.
Contact Ryan Comer at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @rbcomer8388 and on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/