The Key to Happiness in 2017

Credit: Harli Marten

Credit: Harli Marten

What makes us happy? This question has preoccupied philosophers going back to Plato and Aristotle. The debates have been long, and the answers elusive. 

But now we have a clearer idea: It isn’t money or success, it isn’t having a fulfilling job or a perfect body. Scientific studies have demonstrated that happiness comes down to one surprisingly straightforward thing: If you want to be happy, spend more time with people who make you happy. 

A recent Harvard study tracked data about the physical and emotional well-being of more than 700 men over eight decades, analyzing everything from brain scans and blood samples to fill-in-the-blank surveys. What they discovered was a single factor that separated happy subjects from unhappy ones: the quality of relationships they had with family, friends and loved ones. The number didn’t matter: people with lots of friends, but few really close ones, weren’t as happy as those who had fewer, but more deeply connected relationships. 

What are the characteristics of this kind of close relationship? It’s someone you can confide in, trust with a secret, reveal your vulnerabilities to, all without fear of being judged or rejected, but with the confidence that you’ll get an empathic and supportive response. This kind of relationship is necessarily reciprocal; it doesn’t work if it’s only one way. You take turns as confessor and confidante. At the root of it all is cultivating intimacy, a sense of understanding and being understood. 

What does it take to create and sustain the kind of relationships we’re talking about here? Back in the early 1970s, a pair of psychologists developed something they called social penetration theory. Simply put, their idea was that relationships begin when people exchange superficial information, and deepen in stages as the participants share progressively more intimate information. Each stage entails a risk. What will happen when they open up? How will the other person respond? What will they share in return? As the risks are taken, rewarded and reciprocated, the relationship deepens. 

This may sound like simple common sense but think of how daily life conspires to discourage this kind of risk-taking. Imagine the many people you know and like who you never seem to have the time to get to know better. Think of the old friends with whom you’ve endlessly vowed to get together and yet never get around to making a date. Think of how hard it is to break out of the habitual patterns that govern the relationships with people we know the best – parents, children, siblings and partners. In the midst of our hectic lives, we rarely have the kind of deep and meaningful interactions that truly bind us together.

One more thing: when this theory was first conceived, most communication was face-to-face, or in real time on a telephone, or occasionally in a written letter. Today, we live in a digital age where people update their friends (or “friends”) with social media posts, and communicate with loved ones in terse, acronym- and emoji-ridden texts. This makes it easy to avoid the kind of human contact that leads to the intimate relationships we need to survive. We are looking for love, but settling for likes.

So, if you want to be happy in 2017, make this resolution. Spend more time with the people you really care about. Find someone in your life – start with one person — you want to be closer to. It could be your romantic partner, a family member, a friend you see every day, or one you were once close to and have fallen out of contact with. Get together face to face, and give yourself the gift of time to really talk. Let your customary guard down and open up with that person. And when they open up to you — and they will — listen with love, and offer them your understanding and support. You’ll leave the encounter feeling rewarded for taking the risk, and ready to take the next one. 


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Dorothy Kresz