What Makes Us Happy?

Happiness, Social Connection, Loneliness

How happy are we in today’s world? Are we satisfied with our current life? What can we do to improve our happiness and life satisfaction? These are all extremely difficult questions to answer. However, they are undoubtedly important questions we ask ourselves. A lot of research is being conducted to understand what makes us happy and how it influences our health (mental and physical), productivity, and mainstream economics. There is a lot of ongoing debate on how happiness can be measured, but I won’t be discussing that today.  

In this article, I will focus on two key concepts that are linked to happiness and satisfaction – Loneliness & Social Connection. I want to point out that these two concepts are not 100% responsible for being happy and satisfied, but it is definitely a good starting point.  

Loneliness 

Vivek Murthy, former Surgeon General of the United Stated States said the following about loneliness in his research paper Work & the Loneliness Epidemic  

“Loneliness and weak social connections are associated with a reduction in lifespan similar to that caused by smoking 15 cigarettes a day”  

The news that loneliness is as bad as smoking is alarming. Smoking kills nearly 7 million people each year and loneliness could potentially have an equally devastating impact on our society. However, before we discuss anything further about loneliness, it is important to understand its definition.   

Loneliness is defined as painful isolation by psychologists and social neuroscientists. The reason is to clearly distinguish between solitude and subjective loneliness. Solitude is you taking some time off to read a book or going for a long walk to clear your mind. Subjective loneliness is when you want to hang out with your friends or family, but you are unable to.   

A lot of evidence and research that points out that people who report feeling lonely are more likely to have health problems later in their life. The explanation given is that social isolation sets of unconscious biological threat within our body, which results in reduced sleep and ineffective hormone production. In laymen’s terms, when you feel lonely, your body thinks you are under attack. This is an evolutionary trait of ours.   

Our ancient ancestors needed to live together if they wanted to survive. Getting enough food, protecting young children, not getting eaten by a lion, and having a safe place to live was not possible alone. Therefore, being together meant survival, and being alone meant death. What this meant was humans needed to get along with each other to survive. So, our body developed what is called “social pain”, it is an evolutionary trait to social exclusion and rejection. Social pain sends out early signs to us saying that we should stop a behaviour that could potentially result in isolation. Therefore, when our ancestors felt this social pain, they were more likely to change their behaviour and get accepted back in the group. This is why rejection hurts and loneliness is so painful.   

So, now the question is, can we make ourselves happy if we spend more time with others and have a better social connection? 

Watch: International Day of Living Together in Peace 

Linking Loneliness, Social Connection & Happiness 

Starting in 1938, a group of researchers from Harvard embarked in one of the longest research programs to date. Spanning 80 years, they decided to track the lives of a group of 724 boys. The main purpose was to follow the development of these teenagers. They did so by conducting interviews during fixed intervals and performing medical check-ups. The research aimed to understand how their health and well-being evolved as they grew up. This research project goes by the name of the Harvard Study of Adult Development.   

Robert Waldinger, who is the current director of this study, summarised the research findings in his captivating Ted Talk, “What makes a good life?”. The main conclusion of the study was that social connection is vital for a person to have good health and be happy. This is what Robert had to say –   

“Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. We have learned three big lessons about relationships. First, social connection is good for us and loneliness kills. Second, it is not about the number of friends and family you have, it is the quality of the close relationships that you have that matters. Third, living in the midst of conflict is really bad for our health.” 

It is clear that having a social connection is extremely good for us and that loneliness has a devastatingly negative effect on both physical and mental health. However, it is important to point out here that being happy and having a good social connection is not that simple or easy. In the same vein, feeling lonely is not something to be ashamed of. Are you ashamed for being hungry? No. Feeling lonely is just a normal biological reaction, which is telling you that you need some form of social connection.   

What we should do is move away from this narrative that fame, money, and pushing yourself to work extremely hard will bring you happiness and satisfaction. Fame, money, and work can only bring you a certain amount of happiness. To truly be happy and satisfied, you need to be in good relationships. This starts at home with your family and friends and at work with your colleagues.   

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