When I reflect on the happiest times of my life, a common theme emerges: they’ve all involved other people. On a more specific level, the most fulfilling moments I’ve experienced have involved connecting with close others. In a broader sense, the happiest prolonged periods of my life have been those where I’ve felt surrounded by a tight-knit and supportive community, buoyed up by their constant peripheral presence. However, this idea seems to sometimes be left out of a certain type of rhetoric around well-being that I constantly find myself confronted with.
In an article for the New York Times, Ruth Whippman (author of America the Anxious: How Our Pursuit of Happiness Is Creating a Nation of Nervous Wrecks”) expounds on the notion currently proliferating our culture that happiness comes from the self. Dubbing this an “isolationist philosophy”, she explains:
“I’ve noticed that this particular strain of happiness advice — the kind that pitches the search for contentment as an internal, personal quest, divorced from other people — has become increasingly common. Variations include “Happiness is determined not by what’s happening around you, but what’s happening inside you”; “Happiness should not depend on other people”; and the perky and socially shareable “Happiness is an inside job.”
She goes on to comment on the ways in which solitary “happiness” pursuits, typically involving apps or other “self-care” products, have often resulted in spending less time actually connecting with those around us.
In order to test the ubiquity of these ideas, I typed “happiness quotes” into Pinterest (that bottomless reservoir of inspirational quotes), and sure enough, found many examples similar in nature to the following:
It goes without saying that practices like meditation, journaling and self-reflection are incredibly valuable. However, an abundance of research also points to our happiness being dependent on connecting with other people. Many studies claim that social bonds are some of the strongest predictors of happiness, and that people – even introverts – consistently report themselves happier when they are around others.
In his popular TED talk, Martin Seligman, the “father of positive psychology”, also emphasizes the profound importance of relationships:
“Starting about 6 years ago, we asked about extremely happy people, and how do they differ from the rest of us. And it turns out there’s one way, very surprising. They’re not more religious, they’re not in better shape, they don’t have more money, they’re not better-looking, they don’t have more good events and fewer bad events. The one way in which they differ – they’re extremely social. They don’t sit in seminars on Saturday morning, they don’t only spend time alone. Each of them is in a romantic relationship and each has a rich repertoire of friends.”
Now, Seligman goes on to say that this is far from the only contributor to true happiness, as well as that the data may be merely correlational. Yet intuitively it makes sense to me: the less we focus solely on ourselves and the more we focus on connecting with others and nurturing relationships, the happier we are.
Of course, this focus on self-discovery as an independent pursuit isn’t necessarily universal. Collectivist cultures such as those in Asia place far less emphasis on independence than individualistic cultures like North America. A key difference that has been reported in how these societies conceive of happiness involves the pursuit of self-transcendence vs. self-enhancement: westerners emphasize autonomy and self-esteem, while easterners regard the self as a small part of a greater collective.
As an extrovert who loves to socialize, I find this communal perspective encouraging and have latched on to the idea that I’m doing something right. I’m even dating someone who once asked a professor for an extension on his paper specifically so that he could have time to hang out with friends, citing the importance of socializing for his mental health. Balance is key – as always – but if you’re looking to justify blowing off studying and hitting up a few more Christmas parties this exam season, consider your request granted.
Of course, building community isn’t always easy, and it’s common to experience loneliness and isolation. Your social calendar is never a measure of your worth, and if you’re feeling left out and disconnected, know you’re far from the only one. If you’re interested in getting more connected, our campus offers some amazing opportunities to meet new people through its huge array of clubs and course unions, volunteer positions, intramurals, support groups, and events: this can be a great way to expose yourself to other students who share your interests and passions.
The views expressed in this blog are my own, and do not necessarily reflect the policies or views of the University of Victoria. I monitor posts and comments to ensure all content complies with the University of Victoria Guidelines on Blogging.