Proof Positive: Can Other People Make Us Happy?
When we feel love and kindness toward others it not only makes others feel loved and cared for, it helps us also to develop inner happiness and peace.
— Dalai Lama
Are we happy when we get what we want?
This year the keynote speaker at the American Psychological Association convention was Dr. Dan Gilbert of Harvard. His book Stumbling on Happiness is an international bestseller and his talk was about affective forecasting: Do we know what will make us happy?
He pointed out that we are hardwired from birth to be happy when we get salt, fat, sweet things and sex. Beyond that our culture provides us cues about what will make us happy. That was when he showed us a photo of his mother.
He explained that his mother was the cultural agent informing him of what will make him happy: Marry a nice girl, find a job you like, and have some children.
He took his mother to task with these things. Today we’ll talk about the first. Love and marriage will surely make us happy, yes?
Well, yes and no.
Ask pretty much anyone who has been married a long time and he or she will tell you that the early part of the relationship was better than the latter. This seems to be confirmed by research. Also true is that married people live longer, have more sex, and are happier than single people.
But is this cause and effect? It may be that happier people are more likely to get married, and happy single people simply may not feel the need to get hitched. Joyful folks seem to draw happy people toward them. Or, as Dr. Gilbert noted, “Who wants to marry Eeyore when you could marry Piglet?”
Alternately, if your marriage is unhappy and you divorce, you become happier afterward. Staying married won’t bring you bliss if the relationship has gone bust.
This brings us to what we know from reams of data about happiness and relationships: It is the goodness of social relationships that truly makes us happy. Good relationships are the foundations for almost every measure of well being. Our immune system, our incidental sense of peace and joy, and our optimism for the future is better when we feel good about our daily social relationships. The better we feel in the social network of others in our life, the happier we are. With poor or nonexistent relationships we cannot flourish.
Understanding what it means to have a good social network is the stuff of literature and science. Malcolm Gladwell’s best-selling book Outliers begins with the tale of a culture, the Rosetans of Roseto, Penn., that seemed immune to the diseases and failings of surrounding neighborhoods. When they were studied to find the reason for their joyous and robust life nothing panned out. What made them so healthy? It wasn’t what they ate, or how much they exercised, or their net worth. It was the quality of their social network. They talked to people on their way to the bank or butcher or grocery. Their social network had goodness, regularity and quality. That made the difference. They had better lives because they took the time to talk to people they liked.
But the science of studying human choice in interactions goes back to the 1920s and crystallizes with the publication of a book, Who Shall Survive, by Jacob Levy Moreno. He is usually credited as the first person to notice and research social network analysis and that the goodness of social relationships is important for survival. In fact, the complete title informs us of what he was offering: Who Shall Survive? A New Approach to the Problem of Human Interrelations. It was published in 1934, more than 75 years ago.
Moreno coined the term ‘group therapy’ and pioneered the group therapy movement with the formation of psychodrama. A psychiatrist and younger contemporary of Freud’s in Vienna, Moreno, in his autobiography, tells of their meeting in 1912.
I attended one of Freud’s lectures. He had just finished an analysis of a telepathic dream. As the students filed out, he singled me out from the crowd and asked me what I was doing. I responded, ‘Well, Dr. Freud, I start where you leave off. You meet people in the artificial setting of your office. I meet them on the street and in their homes, in their natural surroundings. You analyze their dreams. I give them the courage to dream again. You analyze and tear them apart. I let them act out their conflicting roles and help them to put the parts back together again.
Moreno was no wallflower.
Choosing who we talk to, spend time with and respond to — and who we don’t — is the stuff of what Moreno called sociometry. He found that people who were able to choose their compatriots did better and survived longer. Consider this quote from the forward to the original edition by a then-prominent psychiatrist, Dr. William Alanson White.
If … the individual can be sufficiently understood on the basis of his needs of expressions, and the qualities of other(s) .. needed to supplement him … he would … blossom and grow and be not only socially acceptable and useful, but a relatively happy person.
Choosing who we want to be with, and talk to, and spend time with sounds like a no-brainer. But the truth is most people simply don’t do it. We feel obligations and play politics, and in doing so lessen the time we spend with people who make us happy. More than this, consider those with little or no choice — those placed in foster homes, prisons, institutions, group homes, rehabs, hospitals, and yes, even college dorms. Why are there so many interpersonal problems in these settings? Moreno would argue that the lack of sociometric choice is the culprit.
Years ago I was hired to consult for an agency that was having problems with several new group homes. The people moving into these homes were from institutions and the community, and they struggled with intellectual, psychiatric and in some cases physical disabilities. There was random violence, noncompliance, and staffing issues. The agency was encouraged to allow the residents to choose their roommates. The staff chose their coworkers and the homes to which they were assigned. Within three months of the change the problems dissolved. The organization has long since altered how roommate and staffing assignments are made.
What made the difference? Perhaps Hubert H. Humphrey, former vice president of the United States, summarized it best: “The greatest healing therapy is friendship and love.” Choosing the people we want to be with is the foundation for both personal and collective wellbeing.
Some people make us feel good when we are around them. I encourage you to foster, nourish and cultivate these relationships. Spend more time with those who make you feel good, and less with those who don’t. If you are responsible for assigning people, and it is possible to let them choose who to be with or where to go, do it.
So: Can other people make us happy? Yes, they can. But only if they are the right ones.
Tomasulo, D. (2010). Proof Positive: Can Other People Make Us Happy?. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 5, 2016, from http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2010/09/13/proof-positive-can-other-people-make-us-happy/