It's a foundational belief that we should be happy. But pursuing happiness can be difficult and disorienting, and that's if you have a clear idea of what exactly it is! Happiness is something you achieve through exploration and curiosity and most importantly, through community. It's not as easy to find as our "add to cart" mentality would like.
Psychology Today defines happiness as more than a cheerful mood; it is “a state of well-being that encompasses living a good life, one with a sense of meaning and deep contentment.” To achieve this state, we must employ methods that look beyond the basics of meeting personal needs by taking a broader view of the mutually dependent, interwoven nature of existence. We do not live in a vacuum; if we want to create sustainable happiness, we must learn the art of reciprocal care.
What Is Reciprocal Care?
Simply put, it is the recognition of our interconnection with all of life, human and otherwise. Reciprocity, the core of this concept, means acknowledging that we survive not by our sweat alone but through a complex interplay of mutual support.
For example, we are nurtured by our parents when we are too young to care for ourselves. We breathe in what the trees breathe out, and vice versa. We get our food from the plants and animals that depend on the soil, and a vast array of microscopic beings nourish that soil, which enables it to support life.
Scientist, decorated professor, author, and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation Robin Wall Kimmerer describes these relationships and the responsibilities they elicit beautifully:
The Honorable Harvest asks us to give back, in reciprocity, for what we have been given. One of our responsibilities as human people is to find ways to enter into reciprocity with the more-than-human world. We can do it through gratitude, through ceremony, through land stewardship, science, art, and in everyday acts of practical reverence.
How Is Reciprocity Important For Happiness?
As Kimmerer suggests, the heart of reciprocity is sustainability, an essential ingredient for a healthy, happy world. When we understand the relationships between things and begin to care more profoundly, we become motivated to behave in ways that perpetuate life. This care makes us feel connected, adding meaning to our existence and encouraging us to act more sustainably—a positive feedback loop.
As previously mentioned, meaning is a critical part of what defines happiness and is primarily determined by how we relate to others. Research shows that overall happiness is the product of many variables ranging from income to health to family, but one of the most crucial is personal relationships.
If you think about it, reciprocity is a fantastic tool for building stronger relationships with other people and all of life. In a world in crisis, more care could be the antidote to the poisons that have been proliferated by too little of it. This should compel us to act more responsibly, aka sustainably, which will heal our relationships and lead to more happiness. Hurray for a win-win!
Like so many things, we can cultivate happiness through conscious behavior. This process is facilitated by considering our place in the greater scheme of things. Not only does this get us out of our heads long enough to consider others and the planet we inhabit, but it also improves our quality of life.
There are many ways to enact this process regularly. We can create daily rituals that ground us in our moments and demonstrate the values of commitment and continuity. We can deliberately develop connections with people through regular real-time contact (five-minute phone calls, shared coffee breaks, afternoon walks together, etc.). We can focus on where we hold tension and systematically release it (especially in the face, the seat of personality. When you relieve stress here, people can see it and often respond positively).
Each of these behaviors brings us into the present, enabling us to engage compassionately with those around us. Being in the present helps us know how to act in a way that honors reciprocal care. In turn, this behavior creates enduring and sustainable happiness that will help us to live our best, most meaningful lives.
Consider forwarding this to a friend.
“Happiness.” Psychology Today, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/happiness.
Kimmerer, Robin Wall. Braiding Sweetgrass. Milkweed Editions, 2015.
Ackerman, Courtney E., and Maike Neuhaus. “What Is Happiness and Why Is It Important? (+ Definition).” PositivePsychology.com, 16 February 2019, https://positivepsychology.com/what-is-happiness/#behind-human-happiness.