We hear this all the time and it has kept psychiatrists like me in business for years. While I agree with the overall message, it has become increasingly apparent to me that happiness comes from “with” as much as it comes from “within.”
Too much self-help leads to too much self-interest. As David Brooks wrote in the New York Times, “We live in the culture of the Big Me.” As research shows, an emphasis on the “Big Me” actually undermines feeling fulfilled.
Happiness is not a solo enterprise and wellbeing doesn’t occur in a vacuum. We are social creatures and our wellbeing—both physical and mental—depends on our connections. According to the World Happiness Report 2013, generosity and social support are, in fact, two of the strongest predictors of wellbeing.
Research shows that the happiest people have close ties to friends and family. Social interaction beyond one’s immediate circle is important too. Studies show that people who connect with other human beings, even strangers on a train or in the checkout line, report brighter moods. Behavioral scientists call this “social snacking.” It may be the healthiest snack in the world.
People are happier when they are with other people than when they are alone—and this isn’t just for outgoing types. Introverts experience a boost as well.
Cultivating connections is life-enhancing and helps buffer against stress. Building a strong connection to a social group has been shown to help people with depression recover and prevent relapse.
The benefits of social activity for the elderly abound. Those who are socially connected also stay mentally sharp.
Strong relationships go hand in hand with resilience. A Harvard study of children who thrive in spite of traumatic childhoods explains:
Why do some children adapt and overcome, while others bear lifelong scars that flatten their potential? A growing body of evidence points to one common answer: Every child who winds up doing well had at least one stable and committed relationship with a supportive adult.
In other words, resilience does not come from willpower or grit; it comes from relationships and hope. In addition to providing a sense of identity, belonging to a group or community helps us to feel like we are part of something larger than ourselves.
David Brooks says it best:
I’ve come to think that flourishing consists of putting yourself in situations in which you lose self-consciousness and become fused with other people….And it happens most when we connect with other people.
Most wellbeing is not created by pursuing our personal happiness. Doing something for others and with others is where we find true fulfillment.
So when my patients tell me, “I just want to be happy,” I do my best to shift their focus away from “I.”