Hell is other People? On being Happy with & without Others

The MAPP program is a fulltime program – but combines onsite classes with long-distance learning periods. Part of the distance learning comprises a lot of reading (Who would have thought of that…) and writing essays about a wide array of positive psychology topics. I´ve decided to post some of those essays here on Mappalicious. Surely, they´re not the be-all and end-all of academic writing. But then again, it would also be a pity to bury them in the depths of my laptop…


There is an abundance of proverbs that are suggestive of the positive upshots of close relationships. By way of example, we say “no man is an island” and therefore “a sorrow shared is a sorrow halved”. Or vice versa: “A joy shared is a joy doubled.”

Positive psychology and adjacent disciplines underscore this importance of close relationships, be it friendship, love, or the support of a larger social entity (Reis & Gable, 2003). When asked to give a short definition of positive psychology, the late Christopher Peterson used to say: “Other people matter.” (2006, p. 249). Fredrickson (2013) complements this observation by stating that love (and its benefits) cannot be a matter of one person, but resides in pairs or groups of people. For Seligman (2011), close relationships are of uttermost importance as well. They are embodied by the letter R in the acronym PERMA which represents his framework of human flourishing.

There is ample evidence that experiencing a sense of relatedness is a fundamental need of humans (Baumeister & Leary, 1995) – and other mammals (Harlow, 1958). Accordingly, feeling close to others has several positive consequences. For instance, married couples on average are happier than singles or divorced women and men, and they also tend to live longer (Peterson, 2006; Fredrickson, 2013). Similar results have been found for long-lasting friendships (Myers, 2000; Demır & Weitekamp, 2007). Conversely, feeling lonely over longer periods of time has shown to be detrimental to our mood and, subsequently, health (de Jong Gierveld, 1998; Hawkley & Cacioppo, 2010). In addition, researchers have shown that happiness tends to spread in social networks. Being surrounded by happy people results in an increased likelihood of being happy oneself (Fowler & Christakis, 2008; Christakis & Fowler, 2009).

Yet, there is another perspective on close relationships. The existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre coined the famous quote “Hell is other people” (1944, p. 191) and he may have had a point in saying so. After all, relationships are the source of some of our greatest joys, but also the context for some of our greatest sorrows. Couples regularly hurt each other (Feeney, 2004) and being physically abused is much more likely in the context of one´s family than with total strangers (Emery & Laumann-Billings, 1998). Even the aforementioned concept of social contagion can work against us. While there is statistical evidence that happiness can be transferred from one person to another, the same holds true for unhappiness and even depression (Rosenquist, Fowler, & Christakis, 2010). So what is the solution here? Are other people heaven – or are they hell after all?

The truth is: even Sartre did not believe that being around other people is necessarily bad for us. He seemed to be rather unhappy when being narrowed down to this infamous quote. Some 20 years later he said:

“Hell is other people” has always been misunderstood. People thought that what I meant by it is that our relations with others are always rotten or illicit. But I mean something entirely different. I mean that if our relations with others are twisted or corrupted, then others have to be hell. Fundamentally, others are what is important in us for our understanding of ourselves. (Sartre, 1965; cited in Contat & Rybalka, 1974, p. 99)

Obviously, Sartre emphasizes the quality of our relationships when contemplating the outcomes of being with other people. Having close relationships can have all the above mentioned upshots – but as humans we also have the potential to spoil these positive consequences if we are not careful enough.

In this spirit, I will now try to make a point that at present I cannot really substantiate with scientific research – but which may hold some truth nonetheless. I believe that in order to be happy in a relationship (be it friendship, marriage, or being part of a larger community), one has to be happy with oneself already – at least to a certain extent. This may be a case of “mesearch”, but then again, it may also be true. It is not at all unlikely that there is a kind of threshold, a minimum level of self-liking or -love that is a precondition for entering into fulfilling relationships with other human beings. To make this point, let´s reconsider the research on married couples. While it is fairly unequivocal that married people are at least a little bit happier than non-married people on average, it is not at all clear if this is due to a causal relationship. Consequently, we do not know for sure that marrying produces happiness. It might just as well be true that people who are already happy before getting married stand a better chance of finding and keeping a life partner (Peterson, 2006). Looking at my own life, I find this to be true. Now that I am married man and have child, I am definitely happier than I was before having met my wife. But: I definitely needed to “come to terms with myself” first in order to be prepared to let myself in for this relationship. Once again: I could not find any convincing empirical evidence for this idea – but I am fairly sure that many people would agree based on their own experiences.

To conclude, I propose that well-being neither resides in the individual alone, nor that it is solely confined to instances where we are with other people. Happiness and well-being are certainly multiplied when shared with others – but we have to “bring something to the table” in the first place in order to make it work.


  • Baumeister, R. F., & Leary, M. R. (1995). The need to belong: desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 117(3), 497-529.
  • Christakis, N. A., & Fowler, J. H. (2009). Connected: The surprising power of our social networks and how they shape our lives. New York: Little Brown and Company.
    Contat, M., & Rybalka, M. A. (1974). The writings of Jean-Paul Sartre (Vol.1). Evanston: Northwestern University Press.
  • de Jong Gierveld, J. (1998). A review of loneliness: Concept and definitions, determinants and consequences. Reviews in Clinical Gerontology, 8, 73-80.
  • Demır, M., & Weitekamp, L. A. (2007). I am so happy ’cause today I found my friend: Friendship and personality as predictors of happiness. Journal of Happiness Studies, 8(2), 181-211.
  • Emery, R. E., & Laumann-Billings, L. (1998). An overview of the nature, causes, and consequences of abusive family relationships: Toward differentiating maltreatment and violence. American Psychologist, 53(2), 121-135.
  • Feeney, J. A. (2004). Hurt feelings in couple relationships: Towards integrative models of the negative effects of hurtful events. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 21(4), 487-508.
  • Fowler, J. H., & Christakis, N. A. (2008). Dynamic spread of happiness in a large social network: Longitudinal analysis over 20 years in the Framingham Heart Study. British Medical Journal, 337, a2338.
  • Fredrickson, B. L. (2013). Love 2.0: How our supreme emotion affects everything we feel, think, do, and become. New York: Hudson Street Press.
  • Harlow, H. F. (1958). The nature of love. American Psychologist, 13, 673-685.
  • Hawkley, L. C., & Cacioppo, J. T. (2010). Loneliness matters: a theoretical and empirical review of consequences and mechanisms. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 40(2), 218-227.
  • Myers, D. G. (2000). The funds, friends, and faith of happy people. American Psychologist, 55(1), 56-67.
  • Peterson, C. (2006). A primer in positive psychology. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Reis, H. T., & Gable, S. L. (2003). Toward a positive psychology of relationships. In C. L. Keyes & J. Haidt (Eds.), Flourishing: The positive person and the good life (pp. 129–159). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
  • Rosenquist, J. N., Fowler, J. H., & Christakis, N. A. (2010). Social network determinants of depression. Molecular psychiatry, 16(3), 273-281.
  • Sartre, J.-P. (1944). In camera and other plays. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
  • Seligman, M. E. (2011). Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and well-being. New York: Free Press.

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