Why are Happy People so Happy?

Why are Happy People so Happy?

Why are happy people so happy? Some psychologists seem to suggest that the key to happiness is related to the complexity of our lives.

In his book – Happiness: The Science Behind Your Smile, Daniel Nettle makes the case for this interesting viewpoint. Even though such a suggestion seems to contradict some current thinking. Especially when we hear so much about the value of getting back to basics, or concentrating on the simple things in life.

Or could Nettle’s ideas be a timely reminder that there’s more to life than work? That realizing this,and acting on it, might make us all happy people?

This is the first of two articles based around “Happiness: The Science Behind Your Smile“. The second article If It Makes You Happy, Do It, suggests three approaches to being happier.

So, are happy people necessarily more complex people? To understand this counter-intuitive idea we need to begin with the importance of social capital.

Bowling Alone

What exactly is social capital? It’s described as an informal network of mutual aid and information exchange that keeps communities thriving. Crucially, this network can act as a potential buffer against stress and alienation.

In his seminal book: Bowling Alone: the Collapse and Revival of American Community, social scientist Robert Putnam chronicled the social changes in the United States which have led to a reduction in social capital.

Putnam used bowling as a metaphor to illustrate the growing isolation of many Americans. No longer as popular as a social pastime, more and more Americans are “bowling alone”.

Putnam described many factors which contribute to these social changes. Geographical mobility, longer working days and increases in average commuting distances all play a part. Outside of work, membership of voluntary organisations is in decline and fewer people are participating in clubs. People invite each other to their homes less, and meet less often socially.

In summary, people spend more time working; travelling to work; in their homes (watching TV – and dare we say it – on computers), and less time doing everything else. Because of this social isolation, it seems that fewer of us are finding happiness in life.

Are Happy People More Rounded People?

Although we’ve defined social capital as a community network, of equal importance is the role of the individual. A community with high social capital is one in which the “selves” of the individuals within it are complex.

“You are not just a manager, you’re a volunteer, a friend, and sport player, a mother, a leader of some group activity, a cook”

People in this context are more rounded – they’re not defined simply by their work. This more complex or integrated view of yourself can be an excellent buffer against setbacks at work. Work is not the “be-all and end-all”. However, if the trends documented by Putnam are correct, then the opposite seems to be occurring. People are increasingly defining themselves by their employment. Their primary living patterns are too narrow – travelling to work, working, travelling home, eating, watching tv, then sleeping.

Psychologists describe this as a simplified self, where the circle of concern around the self narrows. Yale psychologist Patricia Linville found that the more complex a person’s self-image, the lower the likelihood that their happiness will fluctuate. Regardless of how well they are performing at work or elsewhere. Nettle concludes that “Linville’s studies show that self-complexity helps avoid symptoms of depression when a person is under stress.” In short, self-complexity makes for happy people.

Love and Happy People!

Of course we can have too much complexity in our lives, so it’s not necessarily always a positive thing. For example, in “The Paradox of Choice“, Barry Schwartz argues an interesting point. Too much choice can be counter-productive, leading to what he calls: “the tyranny of choice”. It can make our lives too complex. Having to decide between too many options can be stressful.

In making his case, Schwartz suggests some answers. If we’re willing to accept “good enough”, and to choose when to choose rather than being sucked into continuous dilemmas about what to choose, we’ll find we have a lot more time on our hands! What should you do with that time? Again Schwartz answers his own question by saying:

“A great deal of research has been done on the determinants of happiness, or well-being, or satisfaction with life, and a few key results jump out repeatedly.

The biggest single contributor to happiness is close relations with other people ….. family, friends, romantic partners, community members. The richer and deeper the social networks people have, the happier they are. So love brings happiness.”

Happy people then, are complex selves living simpler lives! Be complex, but don’t live complex. Don’t let work define who you are. It appears that the art of happiness is in crafting a more rounded life, with strong social networks. Daniel Nettle supports Schwartz’s argument in his own conclusion:

“People who belong to community organizations, do voluntary work, and have rich social connections are healthier and happier than those who do not.”

The Art of Happiness: What Can You Do?

Here are some straightforward suggestions to help you make the most of this article.

At work:
  • Try to reduce the hours you work. Obvious maybe, but have you really tried?
  • Re-assess the way you spend your time;
  • Be very sure you understand the difference between activity and productivity;
  • Consider working nearer to where you live;
  • Can you work from home some of the time? Try to make the case for one day or perhaps two days a week.
At home:
  • Make the effort to spend more time with friends and family;
  • Get involved in voluntary groups or other social groups;
  • Commit to leisure activities, including some involving exercise;
  • Concentrate on building the other roles in your life – the more complex self.

Perhaps the most straightforward advice comes from Nettle’s summary of the evidence:

“People who work part-time, control their own lives, join community organisations, or get involved in active leisure are happier than those who do not. Yet the majority of people do not make these choices.”

Happy people may be more complex, but perhaps they choose to be that way! Why don’t you choose simplified complexity!

Workplace well-being resources

Workplace Well-being e-guides

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Managers Make the Difference (27 pages, 5 tools)
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