The Most Important Factor in Happiness

by Marshall Brain

We all want to be happy - Everyone would like to live a happy life. So how do we enhance happiness? What is the most important factor in happiness? One important answer to these questions can be found in Chapter 3 of the book Authentic Happiness:

    We took an unselected sample of 222 college students and measured happiness rigorously by using six different scales, then focused on the happiest 10%. These "very happy" people differ markedly from average people and from unhappy people in one principle way: a rich and fulfilling social life. The very happy people spent the least time alone (and the most time socializing), and they were rated highest on good relationships by themselves and by their friends. All 22 members of the very happy group, except one, reported a current romantic partner. The very happy group had a little more money, but they did not experience a different number of negative or positive events, and they did not differ on amount of sleep, TV watching, exercise, smoking, drinking alcohol, or religious activity. Many other studies show that happy people have more casual friends and more close friends, are more likely to be married, and are more involved in group activities than unhappy people.

"A rich and fulfilling social life" is the key factor in happiness. We see that sentiment echoed in this article:

The Importance of Friendship

    The causes of modern social problems, from divorce to homelessness and obesity, are often thought to be based in areas such as poverty, stress or unhappiness. But researchers suggest we are overlooking something crucial: friendship. It would appear that our society is ignoring its importance.

    The philosopher Aristotle said, “In poverty and other misfortunes of life, true friends are a sure refuge. They keep the young out of mischief; they comfort and aid the old in their weakness, and they incite those in the prime of life to noble deeds.” Friendships are vital for wellbeing, but they take time to develop and can’t be artificially created. No wonder they are at risk of being neglected.

    Nevertheless, the Gallup Organization’s director, Tom Rath, believes that we are all aware of the value of friendship especially during difficult times. In his book, Vital Friends: The People You Can’t Afford To Live Without, Rath makes the point that if you ask people why they became homeless, why their marriage failed or why they overeat, they often say it is because of the poor quality, or nonexistence, of friendships. They feel outcast or unloved.

The following article points out the same kind of thing:

Study reveals ‘secret ingredient’ in religion that makes people happier

    While the positive correlation between religiosity and life satisfaction has long been known, a new study in the December issue of the American Sociological Review reveals religion’s “secret ingredient” that makes people happier.

    “Our study offers compelling evidence that it is the social aspects of religion rather than theology or spirituality that leads to life satisfaction,” said Chaeyoon Lim, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who led the study. “In particular, we find that friendships built in religious congregations are the secret ingredient in religion that makes people happier.”

Another reason why friends and social interactions increase happiness is because happiness is contagious. However, in order to be affected by this contagion, you have to interact with others:

Your whole world smiles with you

    In a study published online today by the British Medical Journal, scientists from Harvard University and UC San Diego showed that happiness spreads readily through social networks of family members, friends and neighbors.

    Knowing someone who is happy makes you 15.3% more likely to be happy yourself, the study found. A happy friend of a friend increases your odds of happiness by 9.8%, and even your neighbor's sister's friend can give you a 5.6% boost.

Why is happiness important? Again from Chapter 3 of Authentic Happiness:
    A corollary of the enmeshment with others that happy people have is their altruism. Before I saw the data, I thought that unhappy people - identifying with the suffering that they know so well - would be more altruistic. So I was taken aback when the findings on mood and helping others without exception revealed that happy people were more likely to demonstrate that trait. In the laboratory, children and adults who are made happy display more empathy and are willing to donate more money to others in need. When we are happy, we are less self-focused, we like others more, and we want to share our good fortune even with strangers. When we are down, though, we become distrustful, turn inward, and focus defensively on our own needs. Looking out for number one is more characteristic of sadness that of well being.

    Barbara Frederickson' theory and all these studies utterly convinced me that it was worth trying hard to put more positive emotion into my life. Like many fellow occupants of the chilly half of the positivity distribution, I comfortably consoled myself with the excuse that how I felt didn't matter, because what I really valued was interacting successfully with the world. But feeling positive emotion is important, not just because it is pleasant in its own right, but because it causes much better commerce with the world. Developing more positive emotion in our lives will build friendship, love, better physical health, and greater achievement. Frederickson's theory also answers the questions that began this chapter: why do positive emotions feel good? Why do we feel anything at all?

    Broadening and building - that is, growth and positive development - are the essential characteristics of a win-win encounter. Ideally, reading this chapter is an example of a win-win encounter: if I have done my job well, I grew intellectually by writing it, and so did you by reading it. Being in love, making a friend, and raising children are almost always huge win-wins. Almost every technological advance (for example, the printing press or the hybrid tea rose) is a win-win interaction. The printing press did not subtract an equivalent economic value from somewhere else; rather it engendered an explosion in value.

    Herein lies the likely reason for feelings. Just as negative feelings are a "here-be-dragons" sensory system that alarms you, telling you unmistakably that you're in a win-lose encounter, the feeling part of positive emotion is also sensory. Positive feeling is a neon "here-be-growth" marquee that tells you that a potential win-win encounter is at hand. By activating an expansive, tolerant and creative mindset, positive feelings maximize the social, intellectual and physical benefits that will accrue.

This leads to an obvious question, especially if you are the type of person who is not very social: How do you form real friendships with people? How do you build a real social network? We all understand that exercise is important to health, so we exercise to stay healthy. It would seem like we should be actively working on friendships and our network of friends in the same way. This page offers one technique: "When you truly love others it comes through in your words, your actions, and your smile - people naturally like to be around you. Forming social connections is easy." That page and many other books of wisdom point out the importance of loving yourself as well: "When you truly love your own life you don't want to be anybody else, so you automatically stop comparing what you have with others – this allows you to be happy at any income level. This also means you will possess true self confidence without narcissism." Here are some additional tips.

One way to find friends is to become involved in some kind of community. That community could be found anywhere from your neighborhood, to a local group or organization that interests you, to a DecidingToBeBetter community in your area. One of the fundamental goals of DecidingToBeBetter is to help people form meaningful friendships.

Once you have a strong network of friends in place, what else can you do to enhance happiness? This page offers 11 additional suggestions:

  • Take personal responsibility
  • Improve yourself
  • Live your life on principles
  • Stop the comparisons
  • Spend your money wisely
  • Give
  • Smile
  • Meditate
  • Exercise
  • Take Action
  • Do more things that make you happy
See the page for additional details on each one.

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© Copyright 2011 by Marshall Brain