“How to Build a Life” is a weekly column by Arthur Brooks, tackling questions of meaning and happiness.
We have just entered the season of Lent, a time to pray and fast to commemorate Jesus’s 40-day sojourn into the desert at the beginning of his public ministry. About a quarter of Americans—including 61 percent of Catholics—typically observe Lent through voluntary sacrifice, fasting, almsgiving, and prayer. Many religions have similar ascetic traditions, such as Yom Kippur in Judaism and Ramadan in Islam, in which believers repent and reflect on their need for improvement.
Lent is intended as a somber period, not one typically associated with joy and celebration. But here’s the weird thing: I like it and look forward to it. And I’m not alone—many of my friends who observe Lent say they are happier during those 40 days than during the rest of the year. Even some atheists have chosen to observe Lent for the benefits it can bring to body and mind.
Lent lovers are not just oddballs. The happiness benefits of sacrifice are backed up by plenty of social science. In fact, examining Lent can lead us to a number of new strategies to be happier, whether we observe a religious season of sacrifice or not.
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Perhaps the most obvious link between sacrifice and happiness is self-improvement. According to the research firm DecisionData, the four most common sacrifices for Lent in 2019 (the most recent year reported) were social media (21 percent of those giving something up), alcohol (18 percent), chocolate/sweets (13 percent), and soda/coffee (11 percent). Perhaps some people give up these things for the sake of discomfort—kind of a cyber or dietary hair shirt—but I strongly suspect that most people are looking for an excuse to make a hard change that will benefit them, and make them happier in the long run. You might argue that these sorts of changes are not “sacrifices” at all, but, for our purposes here, the intent matters less than the effect on happiness.
Even if you don’t plan to log off Facebook forever, sacrificing something for a short period effectively resets your senses to give you more pleasure from smaller servings of the things you love. In one study, researchers told a group of participants to eat as much chocolate as possible; a second group to eat whatever they wanted; and a third to abstain completely from chocolate for a period of time. The third group derived the most happiness from eating chocolate, when they were finally allowed to do so. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, even for sweets.
This effect stands even if a particular sacrifice doesn’t have ancillary benefits such as more reasonable sugar consumption. In another study, researchers briefly interrupted people’s moments of pleasure—such as listening to music, or sitting in a massage chair—and found that doing so enhanced their enjoyment of those experiences, because the intrusion kept them from becoming numb to the pleasure.
For my money, though, the most compelling happiness benefit of voluntary sacrifice is that it fosters self-mastery, or—the term that social scientists prefer—“self-efficacy,” which refers to confidence in one’s ability to control one’s own behavior. I often explain to my students that self-denial takes our cravings out of the control of our lizard brains, and delivers them to our prefrontal cortex, where we have a chance to manage them consciously. Decades of research have shown that self-efficacy strongly predicts well-being in many areas of life. As such, a season of sacrifice exercises my muscles of self-mastery; it brings my passions to heel and shows me I am not the sum of my appetites.
It turns out that there is nothing so odd about deriving happiness from voluntary sacrifice, after all. In fact, sacrifice can be a valuable part of your happiness repertoire. Whether you observe Lent or not, consider incorporating sacrifice into your life, and make sure that you are mindful of three general rules:
1. Sacrifice out of love, not fear.
In 2005, scholars looked at the sacrifices people make for each other in romantic relationships. They found that motive is everything: When sacrifices were made with “approach motives” (to attain positive ends in the relationship), they brought happiness. But when they were made with “avoidance motives” (to elude negative circumstances), they brought unhappiness. In other words, if you wash the dishes to surprise your beloved, it feels good and deepens your love. If you do so in order to avoid being yelled at, it puts you on the fast road to bitterness and resentment.
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.
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.
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.