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Neurotheology: Road To Happiness

Road To Happiness

"Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself" - Matthew 22:39

A respectable and sometimes surprising route to happiness is through service to others.

This may be in a small way, helping people where you can. It may be in a public career such as teaching and it may entail (but does not require) privation and personal sacrifice.

Service starts with respect and care for other people. It does not mean putting yourself lower than them but it also does not mean taking a position of superiority.

Being other-focused requires empathy, being able to sense their emotions. You should seek to stand in their shoes and see things from their point of view. Seek to understand their beliefs and values and why they hold these. It is difficult to dislike another person you truly understand.


Happiness through others is a vicarious activity. When you see their joy, you can bask in the reflected pleasure, taking private comfort in the knowledge that you are engaging in work that is socially very respectable.

One reason why connecting with others is so pleasurable is that it increases our sense of identity as we expand our 'selves' into their 'selves', making one larger 'virtual person'.

It is said that 'what goes around, comes around' and 'as you sow, so also shall you reap'. Service can be a powerful way of building personal security. When you help others, then the likelihood of others helping you also increases. If you have helped a hundred people, then all it takes is one to help you when you need assistance.

A classic example of joyful service to others is Mother Teresa's lifetime work in Calcutta. And she is far from alone: many have spent much of their lives helping the poor, the needy and just the public at large. Despite what many appear to become, politicians may well start from a desire to serve and a number do sustain integrity in this cause throughout their political careers.

There is even neural proof that helping others brings happiness. Harbaugh et al. (2007) showed people pictures of their taxes being used to help others and then asked them to donate to charity. Both when they saw others being helped and when they donated. their caudate nucleus and nucleus accumbens, both of which are activated when basic needs are met (including receiving money), lit up on an fMRI brain scan.





PROSOCIAL BEHAVIOR occurs when someone acts to help another person, particularly when they have no goal other than to help a fellow human.

So why does this altruistic behavior appear? One thought, of Kin Selection, is that it is a genetic response to supporting the broader gene pool. Social conditioning can also have be a cause and prosocial parents lead to prosocial children.

The Reciprocity Norm may also have an effect, where people help others, knowing that one day they may want someone else to help them in the same unselfish way. Demonstrating such social norms is likely to get you admiration from other people around you.

Prosocial behavior varies with context as much as between people. Men will tend to be chivalrous for short periods, whilst women will work quietly for longer periods. People who are in a good mood are more likely to do good, as are people who are feeling guilty. People in small towns are more likely to help than those squashed together in cities.

Example: Evidence abounds of people helping others without asking for anything in return. This is the whole principle of charity. Their rationale for helping others is often Intrinsic Motivation.

REFLECTION: Please take a moment and reflect on the following statements:

The best leaders are selfless servant leaders who put their organization’s (and other people’s) interests ahead of their own. They are ready to make personal sacrifices for greater good.

To what extent do you agree? Share your thoughts via comments below or write to us at


Scientific References:

Harbaugh, W.T., Mayr, U. and Burghart, D.R. (2007). Neural Responses to Taxation and Voluntary Giving Reveal Motives for Charitable Donations, Science, 316, 5831, 1622-1625

Lyubomirsky, S., Sheldon, K. M. and Schkade, D. (2005). Pursuing happiness: The architecture of sustainable change. Review of General Psychology, 9, 2, 111-131.

Nelson, S. K., Layous, K., Cole, S. and Lyubomirsky, S. (2016). Do unto others or treat yourself?: The effects of prosocial and self-focused behavior on psychological flourishing. Emotion, 16, 850-861.

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