The Art of Happiness

This morning as I walked to my $800 a week consulting gig - something that seems meager compared to what I made during my 5 years at Google - I ran across a crumpled old man, sitting in the midst of busy FiDi foot traffic. He was right in front of Noah's Bagels, and as I looked at the cafe sign I thought to myself, I would never eat there. Then I looked down to see the man had his own sign. It read, "Grateful 4 everything." I paused. I took a breath. And then I knelt down beside him.

"Would you like a bagel?" I asked.
"Yes please," he replied.
"What kind do you like?" I responded.
"Plain, toasted with peanut butter," he said as he looked down and nervously picked his fingernails.
"Do you want a coffee?" I inquired.
He looked up at me. He had the most beautiful, gentle, soft blue eyes. He smiled. "Yes, with cream and sugar please."

I walked into Noah's. I bought his bagel, coffee and a giant bottle of Smart Water. My heart felt like it was going to burst out of my chest. I have so much abundance in my life, and it feels damn good to share it with people who need it. 

I walked back outside and knelt down again. He was trying to light a cigar under his jacket. "You're going to have to wait to smoke that," I joked, "breakfast is served." He looked at me and smiled. "What's your name?" I wondered. "Michael," he replied. "Have a beautiful day, Michael." "You too. Have a really beautiful day!" he said enthusiastically. 

As I walked away, I reflected on the beautiful interaction I had with my fellow human. I was beaming, and I wanted to share this joy with others. I'll write a blog post, I thought. And then, what if people think I'm being egotistical? Bragging? Prideful? That fear made me pause. But in my hesitation, I recognized how important it is to share stories like these. Michael is my brother. And he's your brother too.

In the book The Art of Happiness, the Dalai Lama argues that compassion for others is what brings us joy. He says, "love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive," and goes on to add that, "if you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion." He talks about genuine compassion, which in essence is a deep form of empathy. It's the idea that accepting another's suffering brings both people a sense of connectedness and fulfillment. In the book Howard Cutler, a Western psychiatrist, backs up this perspective with scientific research. There are numerous other studies that link compassion to increased physical and emotional health, as well.

It's amazing what an impact small actions can have on others. Anecdotal research shows that some homeless people go years without speaking to another human. Some describe it as an invisible plexiglass wall between the homeless and the not homeless. Living in San Francisco where it feels like there are 5 homeless people for every city block (official count: 7,539 or 161 people per square mile), it's easy to want to block out this reality. But these are our brothers and sisters. Our fellow travelers on this journey called life. And so today, I encourage you - say, "hello," buy a bagel or flash a smile. These seemingly trivial actions have the power to transform. Especially yourself.