Americans today are emotionally distressed. Many are nervous about the economy, struggling to afford rent or buy a home, frustrated about the direction of the nation, feeling culturally and politically divided, socially isolated and most concerning of all, uncharacteristically unhappy.
We know Americans are feeling blue because they tell us so. According to a survey by the University of Chicago, the percentage of Americans saying they are “very happy” has nosedived since 2000 from 34% to 19% while the percentage who report they are not happy has more than doubled to 24%. That probably understates the issue because admitting this in a survey requires an individual first to admit it to themselves.
Before we bemoan our emotional state we need to determine what happiness is. Many efforts have been made to define it and they seem to coalesce around the idea that happiness isn’t so much an ephemeral state as a durable way of being. Happy humans are preternaturally happy or find ways to be; things and events don’t make us happy.
Indeed, a massive, longitudinal Harvard happiness study begun in 1938 and, still ongoing, has reached some counter-intuitive conclusions. Regardless of participants’ sex, age and other demographic attributes, even irrespective of their life experiences, the study found, genetics determine about half of happiness; some people are hard-wired to find the good or bad in everything. As for the rest, the markers of success in our country – money, health and possessions, for example – contribute little to happiness.
Poverty can inhibit happiness, but the link between income and joy frays once basic needs are met. A 2010 study by the Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman, the author of the bestseller Thinking Fast and Slow, found that income’s impact on our emotions flattens out around $75,000. Above that, an increase in income barely ripples on the happiness meter.
It is the relationships in our lives, it turns out, that have the greatest impact on our physical and emotional health, our lifespan and our happiness. “Taking care of your body is important, but tending to your relationships is a form of self-care too. That, I think, is the revelation,” said Robert Waldinger, a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, and director of the study.
As explained in this article by Gregg Vanourek, this all hints at the ultimate aim of happiness: we want to feel like we are living a meaningful life, one filled with daily pleasures, opportunities to do what we do best, and using our strengths to serve a higher purpose, like raising children, working for a cause that you’re passionate about, or simply doing good for others.
Consider this: marital satisfaction, a dynamic social life with a web of friends and family, and a strong sense of a greater purpose is the most powerful drug cocktail for achieving health and happiness. Loneliness, which affects a quarter of adults aged 65-plus, is as dangerous to health as smoking and alcoholism.
“When we gathered together everything we knew about (the participants in the Harvard study) at age 50, it wasn’t their middle-age cholesterol levels that predicted how they were going to grow old,” said Dr. Waldinger “It was how satisfied they were in their relationships. The people who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80.”
The implications for all of us are simple but startling, and they offer a roadmap to happiness. Spend less time pursuing material advantages and more time nurturing strong human bonds with those around you. Reconnect with friends and family, curate nascent friendships, and intentionally develop or maintain a rich web of social connections.