Monday, January 4, 2010

People Matter

One of the key pillars to flourishing is relationships. Below is a paper I wrote on November 29th, 2009 about where happiness resides. Relationships matter. If you happen to be watching the PBS special tonight - you'll see it covers some of the research I reference below.

Where does happiness reside: in the individual, dyads, or in groups?

I say all three. Haidt (2006) would agree, as he claims that happiness happens in the “in-between.” It happens in between the self and one’s work, in between the self and a loved one, in between the self and something larger than the self, a group. However, while happiness occurs in all three instances; happiness cannot occur solely within the individual alone. If the only connection one has is work, and not in between other people or groups, than most likely, that person is not happy. Unless that person has a very structured way of dealing with their time and the environment, loneliness lacks the external stimulation, feedback and goals we need to keep our attention from wandering down the negative spiral. Usually, even when we want to be alone, as soon as we are, we end up wanting to be around others again (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). In the below I will discuss happiness in each instance and also highlight findings that supports each occasion.

Happiness happens at the individual level in several ways, but I’ll just focus on one: flow. Flow can occur in a non-work environment, but let’s just assume it’s work for this paper. Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow describes when an individual is in total immersion, “in the zone.” While in this state, the individual is challenged, but has the skills to meet his challenge. Time stands still and attention is laser focused on the task at hand. The experience of flow keeps one wanting to come back for more. It feels good. You’d do it even if you didn’t have to. Doing it is an ends in itself. Your deep focus enables you to forgot about all of life’s other worries. You are in total control. You’re neither bored or anxious. You feel like you’re discovering. It can happen to a dancer, a child spinning into virtugo, a yogi, and a surgeon on the operating table.

Happiness between two individuals is driven by two main principles: attachment, that bonds child to mother, and caregiving, that bonds mother to child (Haidt, 2006). A study on rhesus monkey reveals that “contact comfort,” the feeling of a mother, is critical for development. Researchers found that monkeys would cuddle with a cloth in the absence of a mother; they would do this despite the cloth, not being a source of milk. Attachment enables a feelings of both safety and exploration; two needs that continue into adulthood and into our romantic relationships. Feeling a loved one’s embrace, knowing they are in the room, that they are there to support us, gives us security and courage to explore the world. Furthermore, being in a deeply connected relationship offers an opportunity for giving, which is as beneficial, if not more, to receiving. It’s proven that happy individuals are likely to live longer and that they have better immune systems, recover faster from surgery, and all other benefits.

Finally, happiness exists between the individual and others, a group. We can define a group as narrow as one’s spouse and children to connectedness with people we don’t even know. To support this, we consider Haidt’s ultrasocial concept, and studies of the brain. Robin Dunbar has demonstrated that our brain size is in almost in perfect proportion to our social group size. And our brains are huge compared to other mammals. They are only 2% of our body weight, yet they consume 20% of our energy, and they’re so big they cause us to be born pre-maturely (compared with other mammals) so we can at least make it out of the womb. Why do we have such huge brains, so we can manage the social landscape of our human world. This social landscape is indeed critical to our well-being. In fact, if you look at suicide rates, single individuals have the highest rate, married people, less so, and those with children, the least. Connection between individual and group is super special because meaning is created. The stepping out of oneself into something larger than “me” is most transformative and even transcendental for some. Literally, the human brain has two switches that turn-off when one is engaged in a a mystical experience or a ritual experience with others. These switches turn off one’s spatial boundaries and spatial location; so literally, a feeling of oneness with all the world and all the people occurs. This can be triggered in something as simple as repetitive drilling in the army. I shall end on a quote by William McNeill, describing how marching induced a state of altered consciousness and ultimate connectedness with his fellow soldiers:

"Words are inadequate to describe the emotion aroused by the prolonged movement in unison that drilling involved. A sense of pervasive well-being is what I recall; more specifically, a strange sense of personal enlargement; a sort of swilling out, becoming bigger than life." (Haidt, 2006).


Haidt, J. (2006). The happiness hypothesis: finding modern truth in ancient wisdom.
New York: Basic Books. 
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York:
Harper Perennial.

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