People. Well, isn’t that a topic where we find the best and the worst life has to offer? Yet did you know that happiness is other people? Martin Seligman quotes Christopher Peterson, former professor of psychology at the University of Michigan and one of the founders of positive psychology. Peterson was asked to describe in few words what positive psychology was about. “Other people,” he answered.1 Seligman adds that “other people are the best antidote to the downs of life and the single most reliable up.”2
Positive relationships are crucial. Seligman describes psychological wellbeing as a combination of five contributing ingredients, which include positive emotions, meaning, accomplishment and engagement.3 The fifth ingredient, positive relationships, is by many positive psychologists considered to be the most important one. According to Ed Diener and Robert Biswas-Diener, it turns out that human beings like one another and love connecting with each other. We are happier when we are with others than when we are alone. This is even true for introverts, those individuals who need time alone to re-charge their energies.4 When we pass groups of people we can often witness this: they are talking animatedly amongst each other, sharing experiences, and having fun. According to Diener and Biswas-Diener, it’s not only that other people make our lives more interesting. They also teach us, their ideas challenge ours, their company brings out our playful side, and they inspire and entertain us. If we belong to a group, it helps us define who we are and can connect us with a larger purpose. Further, close relationships allow us to experience love, support, and compassion, often providing encouragement and a psychological if not physical safety net.5
One sad characteristic of depression is that it causes social withdrawal. Depressed individuals typically don’t call or visit anyone, don’t answer their phones, and they certainly don’t post on Facebook saying they are down in the dumps feeling lost and in despair, but don’t want to be a burden on their friends. For anyone not feeling loved, it is tempting to think that positive relationships are all well and good for people who have them. They don’t have the awful family we have; their best friend did not betray them; their partners are not the monsters we live with… Indeed, what if our only friend is the dog? (He is a good friend, by the way, no doubt about it.)
Perhaps it is best to start by accepting the facts. According to every positive psychologist, good relationships are a necessary ingredient for psychological wellbeing. Barbara Frederickson notes: “Every person who flourishes has warm and trusting relationships with other people, whether it’s with a spouse or romantic partner, close friends, family, or all of the above”.6 This means that if we don’t have such relationships, we need to start creating them. Sonja Lyubomirsky writes: “If you begin today to improve and cultivate your relationships, you will reap the gift of positive emotions. In turn, the enhanced feelings of happiness will help you attract more and higher-quality relationships, which will make you even happier”.7
Of course this does not happen overnight. We can start small, however, and there will be rewards along the way. According to Frederickson, we don’t always need to know people; simply being with others is a reliable and powerful way to experience and raise our positive emotions.8 Relationships, however, have their own positivity ratio requirements. John Gottman, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of Washington and world authority on marital stability, found that flourishing marriages have a positivity ratio of 5:1 (five positive exchanges to a negative one).9 Diener and Biswas-Diener recommend the following ratios to optimise relationships: Parents toward their children 3:1; bosses to employees 4:1; friends toward each other 8:1, sport coaches to children 10:1; personnel to customers 20:1; and probably included with some tongue in cheek, parents to their grown up children 100:1 and anyone to their mother in law 1000:1.10
So try to spend time with others, and be positive. With partners, family, friends, colleagues, neighbours and everyone else, be willing to be the best person you can be. Take the first step. Sounds utopic? Not any more than you waiting around for people to be nicer to you! Further, go out more, join a group with an interest you share, and become the sort of person you would like to be friends with. Be interested in other people, it will be refreshing as so many individuals are principally interested in themselves.
Lastly, practice acts of kindness. Lyubomirsky, Sheldon and Schkade found that this happiness-enhancing activity has the best results if people establish a kindness day, on which they perform their deeds of choice.11 Weinstein and Ryan write that our wellbeing is enhanced when our actions contribute toward meeting our inbuilt needs of autonomy (independence), competence and relatedness. When we help someone out of our own free will, we fulfil all three. Firstly, we act independently; secondly, we feel competent as our action has a positive impact; and thirdly, we relate to those we help, often making a positive connection. According to Weinstein and Ryan, it is important that helpful acts are motivated by free choice. If we are expected to help we will not gain the same wellbeing boost that comes from a free deed, nor will our help impact as positively on the receiver.12 Further, Lyubomirsky stresses that our acts of kindness should be freshly chosen every week, and should be meaningful to us.13 Lastly, if we want to make sure our recipient feels as good as possible from our deed, we should keep it a secret. Wilson and colleagues found that unexpected positive events evoke a stronger emotional reaction in recipients if they cannot predict or explain them. Thus, while we human beings like to make sense out of what we encounter, the pleasure paradox in this case means it is better not to know.14 Acts of kindness need to be planned and performed with sensitivity. If you mow the lawn of your neighbour in goodwill they might consider it an interference or accusation. Really look where help might be needed and appreciated, rather than where you would like to play the hero.
It is true that other people can also bring the opposite of happiness. Not everyone is worth knowing or being friends with. The heartening aspect of practicing kindness is that it wakes us up to the fact that we are worth knowing.
© Natalie Lydia Barker 2015