One of the things that the research in positive psychology has shown us over the last 20 years is there’s no one-size-fits-all model for happiness. What makes me happy is quite likely different from what makes you happy. And what makes you happy now is different from what made you happy 10 years ago or 20 years in the future. There’s no single recipe that will increase your happiness at all times and for all people.
But the other thing positive psychology has taught us is that happy people share one thing in common. They have strong high quality personal relationships. It’s really difficult to find somebody who is happy who doesn’t have good personal friendships and/or are engaged in a satisfying romantic relationship.
So who benefits from these personal relationships? Well, the literature and science is full of examples of how adults are happier if they have personal relationships. In our own work we’ve looked at children and we find that children are happy if they’ve got friendships and people they see, friends they see regularly.
In fact, even imaginary friends help. Children with imaginary friends are happier, they laugh more, they smile more, they’re happier. And it’s not just people from the general population. We’ve also looked at people in vulnerable populations. For example, we’ve looked at people with acquired brain injury, people that have brain damage from a car accident or from a stroke. And they’re not as happy. Not all of them, some of them stay happy and those that stay happy with brain injuries, those that are sort of buffered or immunized against the deficits are the problems of a brain injury are those with high quality social relationships, they protect them from unhappiness.
We’ve looked at people with emotional processing disorders. One of them is alexithymia. Alexithymia is a disorder where people have difficulty identifying and communicating the emotions of their own and others. If you were on a date with somebody with alexithymia, and you said, ‘How are you feeling?’ They’d say, ‘I’m going to the store later today’. And you go, ‘No, it doesn’t seem quite right.’ So you say, ‘What, no, no, I mean inside! Inside, how are you really feeling?’ And they might say, ‘Well, I’m a little hungry.’ They don’t get the emotional world and they’re unhappy and their unhappiness is explained in part by their poor social relationships.
And we looked at psychopathy and happiness. Psychopaths are the Ted Bundys of society. They’re not nice people, they manipulate, they cheat, they use others, they feel no remorse, they feel no empathy, they use people. And I thought maybe people that are psychopaths would be really happy. After all they get what they want. And they don’t feel badly about it in terms of using others. On the other hand, I thought maybe they’re really unhappy. After all they’ve got really poor social relationships that are characterized by manipulating others.
Well, it turns out psychopaths are really unhappy, and their unhappiness is explained by their poor social relationships. So this is how we normally see it. We see that relationships, personal relationships make us happy. And yes, this is what the research literature tells us. And it’s the opposite to that, happiness increases — improves our relationship. So given the tight connection between our personal relationships and our happiness, we should be looking at happiness when we’re developing relationships. If you’re courting somebody, if you’re wooing somebody, if you’re online dating and you see a profile of an attractive person and you go, ‘Wow! Add to Cart’. When you do these things we need to take into account happiness.
So a survey was done of undergraduates and they were asked: What do you look for in your relationship with a partner — a romantic partner, a long lasting enduring romantic partner? Well, these are undergraduates. So you have to explain to them. You say, you know, the undergraduates would say a long term romantic relationship? Do you mean like for the entire weekend? And that’s not what we really mean here, we mean a long term relationship where you think about may be having children with the person, spending the rest of your life with them. And this is what the undergraduates say when they get it. 53% of them say, love is important’. 32% say companionship is important’. 4% recognize romance, 2% recognize financial security and 1% — Just 1% of them say sex. And these results are important for two reasons.
The first thing it shows us is that only 1% of the undergraduates are honest. And the second thing it shows us is we got it wrong. One of the single best predictors of your happiness is the happiness of your romantic partner. Other people matter. So I know what you’re thinking right now. I can actually read your minds, comes with the psychology background.
You’re thinking, yeah, relationships and happiness are well interconnected. And you’re golden. You’re golden because you have 6318 Facebook friends but that’s not what we mean here. It’s the quality of your relationships that count, not the quantity. Think of the beautiful Scottish saying that you can count the true friends in your entire lifetime on the fingers of just one hand. And that’s what we’re referring to.
Twenty five years ago when people were asked: List your friends. The friends you could go to in case of a serious setback, like you had a mental health illness, who could you go talk to? Twenty five years ago, people listed three friends. But now it’s different. Now we have Facebook, now we have SnapChat. Now we have Twitter and tweeting and email and it’s gone from twenty five years ago from mere three friends, now it’s gone all the way up to one and a half friends. We’ve gone in the wrong direction.