Our friends at Action for Happiness have published a new calendar with action items focusing on building relationships. You can download a version in high-quality resolution for printing out here.
Want to lead a happier life in 2016 (and beyond)?
This list includes valuable tips, exercises and “hacks” to be happier and lead a more meaningful life. All of these recommendations are backed by psychological science. In case you are interested to learn more, I´ve included links to some research articles that have examined the corresponding topic. No. 12 – 22 are listed here, No. 23 – 33 ½ will be published soon. The pieces of advice are ordered (roughly) by difficulty/level of effort etc. Share and enjoy!
Just like dancing, singing seems to be a natural anti-depressant. Singing is enjoyable and a very healthy kind of physical activity. It doesn´t matter if you sing in the shower, the car, or for an audience. And it surely doesn’t matter if your singing is good or bad. An especially beneficial way seems to be joining a choir. In doing so, people additional profit from the social support such an environment entails.
Good things that have happened in the past can be a powerful mood (and meaning) booster for the present. It could be our fondest childhood memories, our wedding day, or that beautiful sunset from our last vacation: Actively remembering these events can turn today into a brighter day. Accordingly, it´s helpful to create what positive psychologists like to call a positive portfolio. This is a box or a folder (these days, probably a digital one) where you keep especially uplifting memories, such as the wedding video, the first photo of your kid, your favorite piece of music etc.
Conventional wisdom holds that money cannot buy happiness. And while the best things in life are really (more or less free), most things do cost some money. Now, a sizeable body of research shows that investing our money in experiences such as concerts and vacations will be more beneficial for our long-term happiness than buying “stuff”. First, those events are typically shared experiences, second they can be re-lived in memory (see No.13), and third, especially memorable experiences seem to become parts of our selves, an integral part of “our story” – whereas the “stuff” will mostly be gone at some point in the future.
If you´re neither into concerts nor vacations (see No. 14), and you don´t like to buy stuff, it could be a great idea to spend your dough on other people. There´s abundant empirical evidence for the notion that giving money to others (e.g., via charity) can be a veritable happiness booster. Some studies find that spending your bucks on others is much more beneficial for our emotional wellbeing than keeping it for ourselves. If you don´t know where to start: Mashable provides a great overview of online funding sites.
Truth is: the world is a much better place than we think it is. Our senses and our brains are gauged to pay attention to and process negative information much more thoroughly than positive stimuli (see this post for more info). News editors are well aware of this fact and select their stories accordingly. When these two mechanisms join forces, our perspective on the state of the world can become pretty gloomy and depressive. At this point, it could be helpful to practice what Positive Psychologists like to call realistic optimism. It´s not based on seeing everything through rose-colored glasses, but rather on thorough investigation of facts and probabilities. A good way to start this is to learn how to fight off unwarranted negative thoughts. For information on how to do this, please visit this post on Positive Psychology News Daily.
Flow (as described by eminent Positive Psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi) is a state in which a person is fully immersed in a feeling of focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of pursuing a specific activity. It´s a surefire way to satisfaction and personal growth. The experience of Flow is dependent on a set of internal and external conditions, among them, focusing on a single goal and shutting of any distractions (see Wikipedia for an overview). There´s a great article on Fast Company about companies that try to enable better conditions for Flow at work.
One of the hallmarks of Positive Psychology is a taxonomy of 24 character strengths. You can find out what your top attributes are (so-called signature strengths) for free when visiting the website of the VIA Institute on Character (mine are: curiosity, zest, and love of leaning). There, you´ll also find tons of information on how to use that knowledge in order to lead a more satisfying life. Generally speaking, the more we use our most pronounced strengths (e.g., in our occupation), the happier we are.
Recommendation No. 15 already touched the beneficial effects of pro-social spending for our own happiness. The same can be said pertaining to pro-social behavior, e.g., volunteering and committing random acts of kindness. There seem to be positive short-term consequences for our mood (so-called helpers high) but also long-term effects. When we help others, our life becomes more meaningful – and that´s a source of happiness in its own right.
Writing is one of the most potent methods for “getting a grip” on life. It can help us to focus our attention on the goods things (see No. 11) or, alternatively, to come to terms with bad events, especially as a way of creating mental and emotional distance. If you´re not sure how to start, you’ll find advice in this article on Psychology Today.
It has been shown that humans have lived together with domesticated animals for at least 500.000 years. Pets can be a valuable source of comfort, amusement, and distraction. As such, research shows that living with pets has several beneficial long-term effects for our psychological and physiological health, especially for children. Just a word of advice: Before you bring Lassie home, please make sure that you and your family are prepared and willing to take on the responsibility of owning a pet (hint: cats are much more low-maintenance than dogs).
Typically, our social network (the non-virtual one, a.k.a. family and friends) is one of the most important sources of comfort and satisfaction in our lives. Now, the interesting thing is: almost everything can spread through these networks by means of social contagion. E.g., if of most of your friends are fitness freaks, your risk for obesity is considerably lower than when most of them are a little on the chubby side. The same goes for things like smoking, and even activities such as getting married. And this mechanism also holds true for emotions such as happiness (as well as depression). Bottom line: if your posse is a really cheerful bunch of people, this will positively influence your own emotional wellbeing in the long run (at least statistically). Conversely, this also means it could be beneficial to rid yourself of some “forms of energy” in your life.
Science shows that you do not have to practice all of these things (at once) to be happier. Rather, you should find out which of these activities best fit your personality and current way of life – so you´ll find it easy to sustain them. Please refer to: To each his own well-being boosting intervention: using preference to guide selection.
A couple of days ago, I wrote a post highlighting a quote by Greek philosopher Epictetus:
The key is to keep company only with people who uplift you, whose presence calls forth your best.
This reminded me of a concept we discussed (and also used) in the MAPP classes at Penn. Aristotelian Friendship. While the concept of Platonic Friendship/Love (a non-sexual relationship that is pursued because the other person inspires the mind and the soul) has entered everyday speech, Aristotelian Friendship seems more uncommon.
The ancient Greeks knew four kinds of love: Eros (sexual desire), Storge (parental/familial love), Agape (divine love, also: charity/compassion), and Philia. Now Philia is closest to our modern understanding of friendship. Aristotle described three kinds of Philia: friendships of utility, friendships of pleasure and friendships of the good.
Friendships of utility are of a shallow kind; today, I guess we would call that networking – it´s more about being acquainted (and potentially useful reciprocally) in the future. Friendships of pleasure take place on a deeper level. Nowadays, we would speak of drinking buddies, or people who share a passion with regard to the same hobby.
Now, the deepest kind of Philia is a friendship for the good. This means that two people enjoy each other´s company because of a mutual admiration for each other´s characters and personalities. And it can also mean not only admiring, but caring about and strengthening the other person´s character and well-being. Therefore, an Aristotelian friend (for the good) will:
Do you have someone like that in your life? Good for you. And if you don´t? Go and find somebody. Now!
For whatever reason, I am confronted with the issues of aging (and death…) a lot over the recent weeks. My mom had to go to the hospital, and in my circle of friends, parents got sick as well – or even died. And while that is distressing and painful emotionally, I know rationally that getting old(er) is nothing to be afraid of. Because getting older (for most of us) means getting happier. We get less anxious, more satisfied, and get to a deeper understanding of the meaning of (our) life.
While being on the plane that brought me to Philly for the MAPP onsite, I watched the movie Last Vegas starring Robert De Niro, Michael Douglas, Morgan Freeman, and Kevin Kline. It´s a fun-loving, pleasantly over-the-top “geriatric” version of Hangover. Most of all, it´s a story of aging well – and the power of (life-long) friendship.
Coincidently, one of the guest lecturers of this month´s MAPP onsite has been (some 80 years old) George Vaillant, who´s been the director of the world-famous (Harvard) Grant Study – which for 75 years followed the lives of 268 physically and mentally healthy Harvard college sophomores from the classes of 1939-1944, and a second cohort of 456 disadvantaged non-delinquent inner-city youths who grew up in Boston neighborhoods between 1940 and 1945. Vaillant writes about the results of this study in his books Aging Well (2003) and Triumphs of Experience (2012). There´s lots of interviews available with Vaillant – here, I´ll point you to one for the Huffington Post. Two main points that came out of the study:
Love is really all that matters.
Connection is crucial.
There you have it. The Beatles were right: All you need is love. My parents will both turn 70 next year. And by March 2014, they will be married for 46 years. I hope that my wife and I one day will achieve the same…
If you´d like to have more input, please watch this TED talk on the benefits of aging by Laura Carstensen who is Director of Stanford´s Center on Longevity.
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.