Science of happiness

Anna Jastrzembska wonders whether happiness is other people

30th November 2015

If you ask my friends, they’ll tell you that I say: “food/coffee/books/animals are better than people” at least once a day. I would describe myself as antisocial on the best of days. However, I can’t deny that humans are social creatures by nature- it’s an undeniable scientific fact. Researchers continuously show that quantity and quality of social connections impact not only our psychological wellbeing, but also longevity and health in general. Before you panic, let’s stress it one more time: quality. Quality is important. Suffering fools is bad for you.

Humans are evolutionary meant to live in groups, to bond with others and create relationships. Survival of homo sapiens as a species is most likely in a group- not necessarily a family. Not without reason scientists continue to claim that emotions and behaviours such as love, generosity, compassion or empathy are uniquely human. The need to love and be loved, to care and be cared for are fundamental human needs. Because of that, we are reluctant to break bonds with other people and it hurts to do so.

Getting to know more people, especially in your local environment (such as neighbours and coursemates), makes you feel safer and more secure. The feeling of belonging generates happiness- not only yours, but also those around you. It’s the contagiousness of happiness that makes communities flourish. Simple things like a smile or a random act of kindness can make somebody’s day and make you happier, too.  Sharing your bag of crisps, giving a cup of coffee to a homeless person or explaining a complicated concept to a struggling coursemate can make a day for both of you. The same goes for volunteering. Even one-off projects have been shown to boost happiness. As humans, we are simply wired to care for each other to ensure the survival of the species.

“As humans, we are wired to care for each other to ensure the survival of the species”

This is also why the happiest people tend to be from the countries that rank high in social support and generosity categories. Mind you, it doesn’t necessarily link in with wealth. It explains why Mexicans are happier than Americans, and Venezuelans rank higher than inhabitants of Singapore. The statistics are worth having a closer look at. Countries in Northern Europe always top happiness rankings, but Swedes or Finns aren’t known for their extreme socialness. That’s because it’s not the quantity of the human contact that is important for our happiness, but the quality. Knowing that there is someone (whether it’s a friend or a wider social structure or community) out there to support you, someone you can fall back on if you need, is invaluable to our happiness. It’s about how close-knit a community is, rather than having a thousand Facebook friends.  Research found that people are happier if they have at least one close friend, however, their happiness doesn’t increase the wider their social network is. On the other hand, lack of close personal ties makes you not only more psychologically vulnerable, but is as bad for your health as smoking or obesity, while poor quality relationships are a source of unnecessary stress and pain.

Positive emotions are bases for all kinds of relationships. Yes, we’ve all heard about “a friend in deed,” but it’s the positive experiences that bring people close in the first place. Experiencing positive emotions together, sharing good things that happened to you or just cracking a joke - all of these are meant to strengthen social ties. Eventually, it’s the close relationships we lean on in times of need and it’s the memory of the good times you’ve had together that help you get through the hardships. Wide social networks might higher your self-esteem, but it’s your friends and loved ones that give our lives a meaning, and it’s them who make us happy. So, if you call yourself my friend, this one is for you, guys!

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