When sacrifice entails changing your behavior on behalf of others, be sure your motive is to improve their well-being, not yours. Research is clear that down the road, those who engage in altruistic behavior with a motivation to help other people generally experience greater happiness than those whose motivation is for self-benefit.
From the October 2007 issue: The selfless gene
These principles have implications not just for Lent but for religion in general. Sacrifices made out of love to get closer to the divine will enhance happiness and deepen faith; those made out of fear or guilt—or for self-enhancement—will not have the desired effect.
2. Start with “insignificant” sacrifices
We all feel subjugated by our desires to some extent. Even if you don’t suffer the uncontrollable cravings of a true addiction, I am sure there are appetites in your life you would like to control better than you do. And perhaps your inability to do so in the past is a source of frustration.
A small, voluntary sacrifice strengthens the will by giving you evidence that you have more self-control than you might think. Small successes also tend to predict greater successes in the future. People who give up drinking alcohol for the 40 days of Lent are likely better able to give it up permanently if they want or need to, and this principle can work for you as well. For example, if you wish you could get to the gym in the morning instead of sleeping in, start by sacrificing a single snooze cycle, getting up 10 minutes earlier, and doing a little exercise, until it becomes a habit. It does not matter that 10 minutes isn’t enough time to get in shape; the point is to challenge yourself and succeed.
3. Cycle your pleasures
When you think about the sort of thing you’d like to take time off from, you probably envision something that you do primarily out of necessity, not pleasure—work, for example, or a stressful relationship. Time off from unpleasant tasks rejuvenates us and makes the activity easier and less onerous when we resume.
But the principle is also the same for our pleasures—to enjoy them optimally, we need time away from them. I recommend scheduling regular weeks during which you voluntarily forgo ordinary pleasures such as dessert or television, to keep them from becoming routine. You can also temporarily impose something uncomfortable: Get up at 4 a.m. to take a break from the pleasure of sleeping late, or take cold showers as a respite from the gluttony of hot ones. You will be amazed at the results.
From the March 2020 issue: An ode to cold showers
Because sacrifice is hard and uncomfortable, our instinct is to avoid it if we want to achieve happiness. But equating happiness with pleasure hoarding and pain avoidance is an error.
“Daily, hourly, to give up our own possessions and especially to subordinate our own impulses and wishes to others—these are hard, hard things,” wrote the American Catholic social activist Dorothy Day. But Day—like saints and sages throughout history—knew full well that this is exactly the point. Voluntary sacrifice is an exercise of power over animal instincts. It gives us irrefutable proof that we are fully human.