Looking back, I realize that for a long time I did not know very well how to make myself happy. I didn’t really know how to take steps in order to get closer to the situations, projects, mindset, values, emotions, or relations that would be conducive to happiness.
What’s more, I wasn’t prepared to allow myself to be happy. Being happy didn’t quite seem like a legitimate personal aim. It felt dodgy. Hedonistic. Self-centered. Surely there must be something there more valuable than happiness, such as constantly pushing yourself to do better and to please others.
I remember being asked by a girlfriend, a long time ago, what I have managed to do for myself that day. I remember how strange that question felt. Do something for myself? Daily? What a funny little notion.
I grew up in an environment that focused on preparing the conditions for future happiness rather than on being happy. Happiness was a projection, not a reality in the here and now.
I used to be angry about this constant drive to prove oneself and project oneself in the future. About the inability to just relax and accept what is there. It took so much unlearning on my side – before learning how to stop running and just breathe and look around. Now I find less and less mental space for anger. It doesn’t lead anywhere.
Before I could learn something about happiness, I needed to learn how to:
- connect with people, including people with whom I may not have much in common
- not take myself too seriously
- appreciate what I have
- do things as an expression of who I am rather than what happens to me.
I’m trying to practice all this but I feel like an eternal beginner.
I have been following the recent and not-so-recent research on happiness. I’d like to summarize here some of its findings. While most of these findings sound intuitive enough, the nuances and details are important. It’s the fine print that makes the difference.
So what makes us happy?
Research has consistently shown that people who have strong social connections tend to be happier, healthier, and live longer lives than those who are socially isolated.
One study published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior found that people who have strong social relationships are 50% more likely to live longer than those who are socially isolated (Holt-Lunstad, Smith, & Layton, 2010). The study also found that social isolation is as detrimental to health as smoking, obesity, and high blood pressure. Other studies have shown that social relationships can impact a person’s mental health as well. People who have strong social connections are less likely to experience depression and anxiety and more likely to have higher levels of life satisfaction (Cacioppo et al., 2008).
Research has also found that the quality of social relationships is just as important. People who have close and supportive relationships with friends and family members tend to be happier and more satisfied with life than those who do not (Diener & Seligman, 2002). Additionally, people who feel that they are able to rely on their social network during times of need are more resilient to stress and experience better overall health outcomes (Uchino, 2006).
The Harvard Study of Adult Development came to very similar conclusions. The study tracked the lives and happiness of 724 people from Boston over 80 years from 1938, and went on to study the children of the original participants. All participants were interviewed on how happy they were at different times in their lives, and why.
Study leaders Robert Waldinger and Marc Schulz noticed that “Success in life is often measured by title, salary, and recognition of achievement. Those who manage to check off some or even all of the desired boxes often find themselves on the other side feeling much the same as before.”
The authors say that happiness is not a destination to be reached, but a process that comes from good connections with other people. “One thing continuously demonstrates its broad and enduring importance,” they write. “Good relationships.”
Purpose and meaning
Purpose refers to the sense of direction and motivation in life. Meaning relates to the belief that life has significance and value beyond oneself.
A study published in the Journal of Positive Psychology found that individuals who reported a stronger sense of purpose in life experienced higher levels of well-being. This effect was mediated by a sense of coherence and self-acceptance (Mascaro & Rosen, 2006). Another study published in the Journal of Happiness Studies found that a sense of meaning in life was positively correlated with overall life satisfaction and subjective well-being (Wong, 2010).
Research has also found that having a sense of purpose and meaning in life is associated with various positive outcomes, including increased psychological well-being, greater life satisfaction, lower rates of depression and anxiety, and better physical health (Ryff & Singer, 2008; Martela & Steger, 2016). For example, a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that individuals with a sense of purpose had better health outcomes, including lower levels of disability and mortality (Boyle et al., 2009).
Several mechanisms have been proposed to explain the relationship between purpose and happiness. One theory suggests that having a sense of purpose provides individuals with a sense of control over their lives, which can promote positive emotions and reduce stress (Ryff & Singer, 2008). Another theory suggests that having a sense of purpose allows individuals to derive a deeper sense of satisfaction from their actions and accomplishments (Steger, 2012). Engaging in activities that align with one’s values, passions, and beliefs can foster a sense of purpose and meaning, leading to increased happiness and well-being.
Being in nature
Studies have found that spending time in nature can reduce stress, improve mood, and increase feelings of well-being. Researchers at the University of Michigan found that just a 20-minute nature walk can significantly improve cognitive function and reduce symptoms of depression. Another study conducted by the University of Exeter found that people who spent time in nature each day reported higher levels of happiness and a greater sense of purpose in life.
In addition, being in a natural environment has been shown to reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol and increase activity in the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for rest and relaxation.
But why does nature have such a positive effect on our happiness? One theory is that it helps us feel connected to something greater than ourselves. When we immerse ourselves in nature, we become more aware of the natural world around us, which can create a sense of awe and wonder. This, in turn, can lead to feelings of gratitude and a greater sense of purpose.
But why does connecting with nature have such a positive effect on our happiness? One theory is that nature provides us with a sense of awe and wonder, which can be a powerful emotional experience. According to a study published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, “experiences of awe can promote greater well-being by shifting people’s focus away from themselves and toward a broader sense of connection and meaning in life.”
Connecting with nature can also provide us with a sense of perspective and help us put our problems into context. As one study published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology notes, “nature may provide a salient reminder of the larger world beyond the self, which could lead to greater feelings of connectedness to the larger social and ecological systems.” (Ryan et al., 2010).
So the circle closes. Connecting to others and connecting with nature are reinforcing one another and they are both reinforcing the sense of purpose and meaning that seem to be so closely connected to perceived happiness.
It’s nerdy but, since I refer to these people in the paragraphs above, I might as well give the full reference here.
Berman, M. G., Jonides, J., & Kaplan, S. (2008). The cognitive benefits of interacting with nature. Psychological Science, 19(12), 1207-1212.
Boyle, P. A., Barnes, L. L., Buchman, A. S., & Bennett, D. A. (2009). Purpose in life is associated with mortality among community-dwelling older persons. Psychosomatic Medicine, 71(5), 574-579.
Cacioppo, J. T., Hawkley, L. C., Ernst, J. M., Burleson, M., Berntson, G. G., Nouriani, B., & Spiegel, D. (2008). Loneliness within a nomological net: An evolutionary perspective. Journal of Research in Personality, 42(6), 1109-1114.
Diener, E., & Seligman, M. E. (2002). Very happy people. Psychological Science, 13(1), 81-84.
Holt-Lunstad, J., Smith, T. B., & Layton, J. B. (2010). Social relationships and mortality risk: A meta-analytic review. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 51(4), 41-43.
Spreitzer, G. M., Sutcliffe, K. M., Dutton, J. E., Sonenshein, S., & Grant, A. M. (2005). A socially embedded model of thriving at work. Organization Science, 16(5), 537-549.
Keniger, L. E., Gaston, K. J., Irvine, K. N., & Fuller, R. A. (2013). What are the benefits of interacting with nature?. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 10(3), 913-935.
Mascaro, N., & Rosen, D. H. (2006). Existential meaning’s role in the enhancement of hope and prevention of depressive symptoms. Journal of Personality, 74(5), 1255-1276.
Martela, F., & Steger, M. F. (2016). The three meanings of meaning in life: Distinguishing coherence, purpose, and significance. Journal of Positive Psychology, 11(5), 531-545.
Ryan, R. M., Weinstein, N., Bernstein, J., Brown, K. W., Mistretta, L., Gagne, M., & Deci, E. L. (2010). Vitalizing effects of being outdoors and in nature. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 30(2), 159-168.
Ryff, C. D., & Singer, B. H. (2008). Know thyself and become what you are: A eudaimonic approach to psychological well-being. Journal of Happiness Studies, 9(1), 13-39.
Steger, M. F. (2012). Making meaning in life. Psychological Inquiry, 23(4), 381-385.
Wong, P. T. (2010). Meaning-in-life and optimal functioning. In Handbook of positive psychology (pp. 679-687). Oxford University Press.
Uchino, B. N. (2006). Social support and health: A review of physiological processes potentially underlying links to disease outcomes. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 29(4), 377-387.
White, M. P., Alcock, I., Wheeler, B. W., & Depledge, M. H. (2013). Would you be happier living in a greener urban area? A fixed-effects analysis of panel data. Psychological Science, 24(6), 920-928.