In the last few years, researchers have devoted a lot of time to the topic of happiness, and they largely agree on what brings it about. According to Prof. Stephen Reiss of Ohio State University, it’s important to make the distinction between long-lasting, “value-based happiness” and the more transient, hedonistic, “feel-good happiness.” In a recent article in Psychology Today he wrote:
“Feel-good happiness is sensation-based pleasure. When we joke around or have sex, we experience feel-good happiness. Since feel-good happiness is ruled by the law of diminishing returns, the kicks get harder to come by. This type of happiness rarely lasts longer than a few hours at a time. Value-based happiness is a sense that our lives have meaning and fulfill some larger purpose. It represents a spiritual source of satisfaction, stemming from our deeper purpose and values. Since value happiness is not ruled by the law of diminishing returns, there is no limit to how meaningful our lives can be.”
Pleasure that does not contribute to our sense of relatedness often turns against us. In a hunter-gatherer society, “feel-good” pleasure, including lighthearted exchanges and sensory experience, added to the already-existing relatedness among band members and between individuals and nature. Lacking this support and interconnectedness, modern humans often seek happiness in ultimately unfulfilling and potentially harmful ways. These include misusing food, drugs, sex, and power; addiction; and rampant materialism.
So what is it that makes us happy?
According to the research and our experience, there are eight fundamentals of value happiness: relatedness or supportive connection to other people; a sense of autonomy (characterized by personal independence and control); self-esteem; a sense of competence; a sense of purpose; functional connection to your body; connection to animals and nature; and spirituality.
Five of these (relatedness, self-esteem, competence, autonomy, and a sense of purpose) were highlighted in a recent large-scale study by psychology professor Kennon Sheldon and others of the University of Missouri involving some six hundred individuals in both the United States and South Korea. The Missouri study was cross-cultural, which is important because it shows that these keys to happiness are likely to be innate to us as a species, part of our evolutionary inheritance. To the surprise of the researchers, wealth, luxury, and other hedonistic pleasures were way down the list.
Other studies have shown that happiness also involves all aspects of connection: to your body, to nature (including animals), and to spirituality, which all serve to enhance the most important link of all—to each other.
Connection to Others
As a human being, you are a relationship-forming creature. Evolution designed you so that whatever you do, you do the best in the company of supportive people. Relationships are at the very heart of your being. As Paul Martin has shown in his book The Sickening Mind, relationships govern your immune system, largely controlling what diseases you get and how soon you will recover from them; they determine how you feel about yourself and the world in general; and they dictate your mood and your behavior patterns.
If your relationships are supportive and fulfilling, you can be healthy and happy, you can free yourself from depression, and become optimistic. If your relationships are anything less then the reverse happens: you become ill, happiness is impossible, and you can sink into profound pessimism.
The more disconnected you are from good relationships with other people, the unhappier you become. The ability to cooperate with others was the main reason we survived as a species among well-endowed predators. Functional relationships are now essential to protect you from being controlled by the abusive forces in this society.
The very size of the human brain has less to do with our much-touted cognition and tool-making than with the need to form alliances and to interact at a complex level with other members of our kind.
According to Prof. Robin Dunbar of the University of Liverpool in England, apes developed larger brains than monkeys because they had to cope with bigger and more complex social circles. Human bands had still more numbers (up to fifty) and sophistication than our chimpanzee relatives, requiring even greater brain mass. In fact, our brains are so sizable and multifaceted that they account for 20 percent of our entire metabolic activity. According to Prof. Dunbar, most of this brainpower is taken up with relationships.
Our modern societies, however, are too large for even our expanded brains. If you have to relate to more than fifty people, you will have difficulty in forming functional connections, and you will become stressed.
Chimps make connection through grooming each other. In the larger human group, grooming would take too much time, so, according to Dunbar, we developed language as an alternative. Most of what we communicate is gossip. So-called “serious topics,” such as planning projects or avoiding danger, take up a very small part of our communicating time. Exchanging personal information in small groups about our interests, lives, and experiences and those of others makes us happy, just as grooming does with chimps. But to get the real benefit of connection, to be truly happy and secure, you need specific kinds of relationships.
Your relationships must meet your fundamental human needs for physical safety, emotional security, attention, and importance. The people you connect to closely must largely share your interests and beliefs, including spiritual ones, and strive for a common purpose.
In other words, to increase the sum of your happiness, those connections must be as close to those of our Paleolithic ancestors as possible. With supportive, loyal, and like-minded people around you, you don’t fear exclusion and you can become optimistic, positive, and emotionally healthy.
Happiness Tip: Make a list of friends you haven’t contacted in a while, but would like to, and call them.
Autonomy is a feeling of independence and a sense of being in control of your relationships and destiny. It’s about being an individual within the context of a supportive group. Like everything significant in your life, autonomy depends on the quality of your relationships. Without it, security is difficult, which makes happiness impossible.
In our present society, very few people have autonomy. In a sense, we all have an identity crisis. We are in grave danger of losing our individuality. Losing your autonomy is easy and the process can be pernicious. Just consider:
When was the last time you went out of your way to shop in places where the merchants know you and pay attention to your individual requirements? Where people have the time and interest to talk to you or ask after your mother, dog, or health and inquire whether you want the “same order as before”?
When did you last insist on talking to a person, not a machine? Do you try to deal with those businesses that have replaced their computerized voice-mail systems with live human beings (as some have begun to do)? Or bought your airline ticket from your local travel agent rather than shopping anonymously on the Web?
How well do you know your neighbors, and how much do you socialize with them? Doing so gives you a sense of being watched over and protected. Would you consider taking a pay cut to work for a small outfit whose boss you know and who will value your input in decisions affecting you? All of these things will increase your web of connections and relationships and will contribute to your safety and sense of control over your life—and your autonomy.
Research shows that loss of autonomy leads not only to pessimism and depression, but also to violence. Autonomy is sometimes confused with cutting off from society, with a tendency for people to become “loners.” And certainly the need for control over one’s life does drive some people to seek separation from an overcontrolling or overcomplex society.
But you don’t have to be a hermit to feel independent. Having autonomy means that you are given input—and a veto where necessary—over all decisions that affect you or your relationships. It means knowing what you need from other people in your life and what they need from you. Autonomy means being aware of and insisting on your boundaries. It means that other people see you as an individual with needs and rights as well as a member of groups such as “patients,” “consumers,” “parents,” or “children.” When you become a number, statistic, or generalization, you lose your autonomy.
The less control we have over our lives, the more frightened we become. We become controlling and fear that the autonomy of others is a direct threat, or we become fearful, submissive, depressed, and pessimistic. But the process can be reversed when you assert your autonomy in functional ways.
Happiness Tip: Go to as many local establishments rather than chains as possible and strike up a conversation with the proprietor or service people.
You can’t be happy or optimistic if you don’t feel good about yourself. And you can’t feel good about yourself in a vacuum.
Self-esteem is a function of your perception of how other people view you. It will rise when you’re praised, treated as important, or given appropriate attention. It will fall when one of these doesn’t happen. Society has a vested interest in your lack of self-esteem. If you feel bad about yourself, you’ll work harder (although less effectively), stand up for yourself less often, and you’ll buy more unnecessary stuff. Real self-esteem comes from the support, praise, and encouragement you get from people around you. These enable you to overthrow the negative beliefs about yourself planted in childhood.
Happiness Tip: Try to catch yourself every time you make a self-deprecating comment.
A sense of competence is part of your self-esteem and relates to how well you feel you function. Some people feel competent in certain areas but still have a sense of low self-esteem overall. But without a belief that you perform certain tasks really well—and that these abilities matter to the people around you—you won’t have either self-esteem or happiness.
Genetic inheritance may factor in your abilities and your choice to specialize in certain areas, but as French neuropsychology researcher Stanislas Dehaene has shown, your upbringing and schooling probably have more influence.
Your sense of competence then derives from two elements—your interests (probably the genetic part) and the encouragement and praise you got from others. One recent study by social psychologist Dr. Marianne Miserandino of Arcadia University concluded that by the time children reach third or fourth grade, they have a pretty fixed idea of their own competence (which may well be wrong), which in turn influences how well they will do at school.
However, it’s never too late to enhance your sense of competence. We’ll show you how to create an environment that supports you in doing what you do best; turn the people around you into allies, not critics; and garner praise that enables you to shine.
Happiness Tip: Ask the people in your life to tell you when they think you’ve done something well.
It’s very dispiriting to ask “why am I here?” and find you have no answer. Of course, a hunter-gatherer wouldn’t even ask the question. He would have a lifelong purpose within the band, an economic or wisdom role for which he was valued. But in our abusive society, people are made to feel that their only purpose is to make money or, particularly if they are women, be caretakers. Even these roles are sooner or later stripped from them because of age, physical or emotional illness, or corporate or governmental downsizing. Without a sense of purpose, you risk sinking into depression and pessimism.
Your mood, optimism, health, and very survival depend on countering this vicious societal broadside. Remember that to your ancestors, work was only a small part of life; you must seek out a life purpose separate from your economic or even caretaking role. And you can develop a fulfilling and meaningful sense of lifelong purpose, one that will bind you to others and stimulate your genetic inheritance for happiness.
Happiness Tip: Ask your friends and acquaintances (in fact, anyone you can) to describe what they see as their purpose beyond making money or caring for others.
Connection to Your Body
To a hunter-gatherer, viewing his body as separate from his self would have been as ridiculous as seeing himself outside the context of the band.
Sensing a breeze on bare skin, running, lying down, feeling the warm sun or cool water, throwing a well-directed spear, experiencing sex or a supportive arm to aid faltering steps all provide an unquestioned source of well-being and happiness. For some, these and other bodily experiences still do.
Many, however, have lost the full capacity for direct, unfiltered contact with physical experience that is so vital to our complete sense of self and to our capacity for pleasure and happiness.
Sedentary work and schooling, dysfunctional exercise, shame around sex and bodily functions, chronic stress, trauma, and abuse all play a role in separating us from this vital aspect of ourselves. As if all that isn’t bad enough, the media seem to be competing with themselves in bringing us more unrealistic, air-brushed, and computer-enhanced versions of what we should look like.
Distorted body image, trauma, and abuse play a particularly potent role in depression. But you can reclaim your body and rediscover physical experience as a source of empowerment and happiness.
Happiness Tip: Throw out all your magazines that feature impossibly perfect-looking men or women on the covers.
Connection to Nature
We’ve all experienced a sense of awe, serenity, and contentment in nature. Its permanence amid change, its beauty, and its power are just some of the things that draw us in. Whether among trees or in a desert or beside a mountain creek, we feel close to our origins, close to the natural “us.”
Strong evidence suggests that humans become more pessimistic as they watch the despoiling of the natural world. Your potential for hopelessness and pessimism increases with each highway through a national park, each high-rise or shopping center where a meadow once flourished, each news item about the destruction of old-wood forests or the extinction of some species of animal, even if you’ve never heard of it before.
Research by Washington University psychology research professor Peter H. Kahn (among others) has confirmed that ecological destruction is one of the causes of our increasing rate of depressive illness. Equally, Prof. Kahn says, evidence suggests that depression can be alleviated if we become involved in animal rescue or the preservation of our natural home. Even bringing plants into our office or home or sharing a communal pet can lift our mood.
Nature isn’t just about trees, the oceans, or endangered species. One aspect of nature is as close as our living room or the nearest park. Companion animals, particularly dogs, have kept us company over the eons. Many studies have shown that pet owners live longer and are healthier and you are less likely to have a heart attack if you own a dog. Contact with an animal is a marvelous antidepressant.
Our brains are forged to live in small, mutually supportive communities in close contact with nature and animals. The further you get from this ideal the more stressed, depressed, pessimistic, and unhappy you become. When you structure your relationships according to your needs—and your life so that you are in contact with the natural world—you become happier, more confident, and less depressed.
Happiness Tip: Walk in a park or other natural area for twenty minutes each day. Pat at least one dog and talk to its owner.
You are neurologically geared for spirituality. We believe, and many researchers confirm, that without a solid grounding in spirituality there can be no happiness. Of course, spirituality does not necessarily imply belief. It is a feeling of being able to commune with, or even to rely on, something greater than yourself. An ability to lose yourself in that greater Is. Sometimes spirituality takes the form of surrender and letting go, and at others it becomes a powerful incentive to action. But whatever aspect it takes for you, spirituality, like a sense of purpose, is a powerful weapon against depression and pessimism.
Many forces in society prevent you from having truly empowering spirituality. Controlling cults or religions; fear of ridicule by colleagues, friends, or family; a pervasive sense that science and spirituality are enemies (which is simply not true); and in some cases governments that support a particular form of belief to the exclusion of others interfere with our attainment of true spirituality. The all-pervasive materialism of our economic system is the largest obstacle we face. Our society sometimes seems founded on the assumption that the powers greater than us are General Motors and Coca-Cola.
Even if you are filled with doubt, anger, or despair you can discover your own functional spirituality. And by now it will come as no surprise that others can help you do so!
Happiness Tip: Make a list of all the things you believe in that give you comfort.
(extracted from) Creating Optimism: A Proven, 7-Step Program for Overcoming Depression, Based on the popular Uplift program, written by Bob Murray Ph. D., and Alicia Fortinberry, published by Mcgraw-Hill