What Is It That Makes Us Happy?

5 min read

What is it that really makes us happy? As a psychologist and a meditation teacher in these chaotic and heartbreaking times, I am often asked this question. I find The Good Life, by Robert Waldinger, MD, and Marc Schultz, Ph.D., to be an excellent resource. This book draws on a research study of over 80 years, starting in 1938 with 724 participants. The study now includes 1,300 descendants of the original participants. It is the world’s longest scientific study of happiness. The authors wondered what measures would predict health and happiness. They originally thought that cholesterol or blood pressure would be important. It wasn’t. It turned out that satisfaction in relationships was the best predictor of a happy and healthy life.

If you had to do one thing that would set yourself on a course for health and happiness, what should it be? The research is unequivocal. Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period. And the encouraging news is that it is never too late. Positive change is always possible. People who were more socially connected had less risk of dying at any age.

But I often get pushback when I mention this research. “But I’ve been hurt in relationships, I’m not sure I want to take the risk.” Or, “I’m an introvert, I like to be alone.” I understand. Often when we’ve been hurt in childhood, we carry these wounds into adult life. And we often assume that we will be happier, or safer, without close contacts. Being close to others is often perceived to be a risk.

How do we open ourselves to new experiences and keep from fighting our traumatic battles again and again? It is said that “a sad soul can kill you quicker, far quicker, than a germ.” But, if you are alone and feel stressed and lonely, that’s part of what breaks down your health. In fact, researchers are now thinking loneliness is as dangerous to your health as smoking half a pack of cigarettes or being obese. If you have had an upsetting day, and you are ruminating about it, and don’t have a confidant, your body stays in a fight or flight mode, which contributes to higher levels of stress hormones and inflammation. This can wear down multiple body systems. Good relationships can be protective of our health.

One way to connect with others is to be genuinely interested in other people. A simple way to do this is to practice curiosity. It is a choice we can make right now. The scientific evidence is that our relationships are the most valuable tools for sustaining health and happiness. Investing in what is being called “social fitness” isn’t just an investment in the present, it is an investment in how we live in the future.

What about difficult relationships? Or a difficult childhood?

As research points out, generosity is an upward spiral. The goal is to find a way to cope with life that does not push love away. And how do we not take things for granted? Everything is open to decay. Just as trees need water and sun to grow, they need attention and nourishment; relationships do as well.

The study shows that the quality of childhood affects adult lives. The critical link between childhood experience and positive adult social connections is the ability to process emotions.

From our relationships as children, in our families, we learn what to expect from others. These habits are with us for the rest of our lives. They define how we connect to others and our ability to engage in mutually supportive ways.

So, what can we do to cope? We can tune into difficult feelings rather than try to ignore them. Try to see your emotional reactions as useful information rather than something that needs to be pushed away.

For example, can you “catch” other people behaving well, just as you might do with a partner? We are usually skilled at noticing when people are behaving badly, but not so skilled at noticing when people are behaving well.

Perhaps the most powerful approach I have found is to remain open to the possibility of people behaving differently than we expect. I think of this especially during the holiday season when others can be so challenging. The more ready we are to be surprised by people, the more likely we are to notice when they do something that doesn’t match our expectations. This effort to notice is especially important within our families.

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This skill increases over time

Our ability to process emotions is malleable. In fact, managing emotions is something we get better at as we grow older. With practice, we can learn to be better at managing feelings at any age.

For this coming holiday season, I’m going to try letting family members be themselves without passing judgment. And then look at how the day or event would be different. Could this moment be enough? Rather than wish that my mother/brother/relatives would behave or act the way I want them to, could I not fight the moment?

Recognizing another for who they are, with all the idiosyncrasies intact, and meeting them where they are, can go a long way toward deepening a connection.

Mark Twain gives me perspective: “There isn’t time, so brief is life, for bickerings, apologies, heartburnings, calling to account. There is only time for loving, and but an instant, so to speak, for that.”

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