I’ll explain why in a minute. Right now, answer the question yourself. You don’t need to provide a definition of “how to be happy” or make decisions about your priorities — that can feel difficult. Just let three words pop up in your mind.
Mine are: “friends,” “children,” and “flowers.”
In a one study, researchers from Yonsei University in Korea and the University of California, Santa Barbara asked more than 500 students in the United States and Korea this quote about being happy. Among the Koreans, the most popular word was “family.” Americans favored “smile” and “laugh” and were more likely to say “friends” (as I did) than “family.”
The researchers also gave the volunteers standard questionnaires to fill out designed to ferret out how happy they actually were. Volunteers rated their lives on a scale of zero, “worst possible life” to 10, “best possible life.” Other questions probed for loneliness, optimism, self-confidence, feeling connected to others, providing social support, and needing to feel included in a group.
It turned out that among both Koreans and Americans, students who used more social words to describe happiness reported being more satisfied with their lives.
This finding backs up a great deal of research tending to the conclusion that valuing your relationships highly is linked to happiness, whether you first thought of family or friends.
In the United States we often hear variations on the idea of how to be happy, “You can’t rely on other people for your happiness.” Let’s call this the “independent” model. We’re encouraged to find activities we find meaningful or enjoyable that don’t require companionship or intimate relationships. Meditate — you can do that anywhere, by yourself. Exercise — it’s better with a buddy, but buddies aren’t necessary. Pour yourself into a challenging hobby or work — even if that means you’ll be more often alone and communicate less with your intimates.
In the “independent” model, people who think a romance, friend, or social environment will make them happier are — the thinking goes — doomed.
Research suggests that’s plain wrong. I’ll go further and say that in the United States, we’ve created a self-reinforcing bad loop. When we’re out looking for relationships or developing them, we are wary of anyone who seems to actively want us.
We think only people who send the messages, “I’m happy already, I don’t need you,” are attractive. Only someone who is already satisfied with her life makes a good co-worker, employee, potential friend, or life partner.
As Americans, we are taught to pretend we don’t need other people much in order to attract them or keep them in our lives. If you‘re looking for a job, it’s better to already have one. So pretend you’re a busy consultant. If you’re looking for love, you’re more desirable if romance is just an “extra” — a date once a week. The word “need” is important here. No way can you ever seem “needy”!
In this particular study, the researchers looked into whether people who associate happiness with relationship are more giving. It turns out that they are.
Other research has pinpointed the ways that giving is likeliest to enhance your happiness. When you give, do it because you want to, not because you must. Choose opportunities that will be effective and support individual relationships. Being a good friend or mentor is more rewarding than writing a check. I’d add that knowing what your intimates actually want is the best way to give. You don’t have to spend lots of money on gift and suss out a surprise — you’ll do better if you listen to a request and fill it. The same goes for support. Does she ask for advice? Give it. Does she say she hates advice and just wants to cry? Let her cry.
What does all this have to do with health? Everything. Our health is intimately wrapped up in being satisfied with the quality of our relationships. Loneliness is bad for your health.
Having reasonable expectations is important to maintaining relationships. Perhaps I should say “accurate” expectations. People have different strengths. A fun-loving friend is a good companion for an adventure — but maybe not the best person to advise you on a financial trouble. But don’t think less of yourself — or anyone else — if your relationships are central to your happiness. The answer is to invest in people who invest in you and on the whole, bring you happiness.