Take whatever book or article that reports the results of recent scientific research on happiness. One conclusion they have in common is that social relationships are what make people happy or unhappy. Here’s Daniel Gilbert, professor of psychology at Harvard, for example:
”If I had to summarize all the scientific literature on the causes of human happiness in one word, that word would be ’social’. … If I wanted to predict your happiness, and I could know only one thing about you, I wouldn’t want to know your gender, religion, health, or income. I’d want to know about your social network—about your friends and family and the strength of your bonds with them.” (from Harvard Business Review)
The best way to have good relationships is to be good towards others. That’s because relationship is about mutuality, you can’t have a high-quality relationship with someone if you don’t give something into it. Thus we are more happy when we care more about the relationship than we care about ourselves. For social animals like us, it is through relations that happiness enters our being.
So the importance of relationships is paramount for our happiness. But there are at least four additional reasons why we should care about others happiness more than our own happiness. Reason number two is purely prudential: I do a favor for you and I can expect a favor from you when I need it. I exchange favors more or less formally with those around me; some owe me, to some I do owe. By doing good deeds I build a buffer of supportive network that is there when I need it the most.
This social exchange perspective is made stronger through the mechanism of reputation. When I do good deeds to someone, the word tends to spread around – and the word spreads around even more efficiently when I am an asshole towards someone. Because people value justice, those who have a reputation of being good to others can expect favors even from people whom they have never directly benefited. Similarly, nobody wants to step up for a guy who is known to care only about himself.
The reason number three is about emotional contagion. I am affected directly by the mood of others. Through mirror neurons and other mechanisms I pick up the moods of those around me and they have a direct effect on my own mood. Bring in front of me a person who radiates excitement and I feel more energetic myself. Bring me in the midst of miserable people and my mood drops. A human being is not an a island. Thus there can’t be an island of happiness in the midst of a sea of sadness.
Fourthly, researchers show that when people do acts of kindness towards others it is many times the giver who gets a bigger boost in happiness than the receiver. As a social species our brain is wired to give us a boost of happiness when we are kind to others. In the same way that it is wired to give us a boost of happiness when we eat sugar. The difference is that the positive effect produced by good deeds lasts much longer.
But most deeply, we identify with other people. The closer they are to me the more their pains and joys are also my pains and joys. In my last post I described how having a child expands our identity from a person who cares only about oneself to a person for whom my own well-being and the well-being of the child are almost inseparable. But actually the same thing applies to some degree to all our relationships. My identity is more or less overlapping with all those people that are close to me. Therefore their joys and miseries affect me directly, as if they would be my own joys and miseries.
So a practical advice: If you visit the same cashiers in a shop every day, do something extra for them. Make them smile a few times and in the future your own happiness will receive a boost everytime you see them. And if you live with somebody, you better make sure that you think more about how to make him or her happy than you think about how he or she makes you happy. As we are more prone to notice our own good deeds this is the only strategy that can make a relationship sustainable, balanced and happy for both.
Being a human is about being with others. Our own well-being and happiness is entangled to our social relations in a number of ways. Even to the degree that our best bet in increasing our own happiness is to invest in the happiness of others.
It is paradoxical but it is true. The less you care about your own happiness and the more you care about the happiness of others, the more happy you are yourself.