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Finding Happiness In Life

Finding Happiness In Life: Bowling, But Not Alone

It seems fewer of us are finding happiness in life.

Since the sixties, life satisfaction in American adults has declined steadily. Roughly half of that decline in contentment is associated with financial worries. The other half is associated with declining social capital: lower marriage rates, and decreasing connectedness to friends and community. So argues social scientist Robert Putnam.

In his seminal book “Bowling Alone”, 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.

Bowling is still a popular social pastime, but more and more Americans are now “bowling alone” rather than in leagues.

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 strong support for satisfaction and happiness.

Finding Happiness in Life: Bowling Together Made All The Difference

Robert Putnam used a real story to capture the heart of his social study on connectness. It’s a story which revolved around a bowling league.

John Lambert and Andy Boschma knew each other only through their local bowling league in Michigan. Lambert was a sixty-four-year-old retired employee of the University of Michigan hospital who had been on a kidney transplant waiting list for three years. Boschma, a thirty-three-year-old accountant, learned indirectly of Lambert’s predicament. In an unexpected act of kindness, Boschma offered to donate one of his own kidneys.

“Andy saw something in me that others didn’t,” said Lambert. “When we were in the hospital Andy said to me, ‘John, I really like you and have a lot of respect for you. I wouldn’t hesitate to do this all over again.’ I got choked up.” Boschma returned the feeling: “I obviously feel a kinship with Lambert. I cared about him before, but now I’m really rooting for him.”

As Putnam concluded:“This moving story speaks for itself, but the photograph that accompanied this report in the Ann Arbor News reveals that in addition to their differences in profession and generation, Boschma is white and Lambert is African American.

That they bowled together made all the difference.”

“In small ways like this – and in large ways, too – we Americans need to reconnect with one another. That is the simple argument of this book.”

How are People Finding Happiness in Life?

“What is the single most common finding from half a century of research on the correlates of life satisfaction?” Researchers could give you a surprisingly clear answer:Do we know how people are finding happiness in life?

It is “that happiness is best predicted by the breadth and depth of one’s social connections.”

Happy people seem to have better social connections.

Putnam drew some startling assessments from numerous studies and surveys, which add up to a significant body of evidence. Putnam couched his analysis in general terms, admitting that his underlying calculations were “rough” and “ready”. Nonetheless, they still indicated “profound links” between social connections and happiness.

For example, take these three statements about the effect of social capital:

  • Joining and participating in one group cuts in half your odds of dying next year (which is good to know!).

“The bottom line from this multitude of studies: As a rough rule of thumb, if you belong to no group but decide to join one, you cut your risk of dying over the next year in half. If you smoke and belong to no groups, it’s a toss-up statistically whether you should stop or start joining.”

  • Every ten minutes of commuting reduces all forms of social capital by 10%.
  • Watching commercial entertainment TV is the only leisure activity where doing more of it is associated with lower social capital.

What if you calculated the financial equivalence of the effect of some common life factors on our contentment/happiness? Putnam did just that, and it makes for very interesting reading.

  • Firstly, as income rises, our life contentment does increase, so money can buy happiness (to an extent), but not as much as marriage!
  • Getting married is the “happiness equivalent” of quadrupling your income.
  • Four additional years of education is the “happiness equivalent” of roughly doubling your annual income.
  • Regular club attendance, volunteering, entertaining, or church attendance is the “happiness equivalent” of doubling your income.

Putnam used these headline-making statements to show the strength of the link between social connectedness and happiness. He qualified his conclusions, pointing out that the direction of causality is ambiguous. Perhaps happy people are more likely to do these things, rather than the things actually making them happy.

However, whether causal or not, his essential point is that there is a strong link between connectedness and happiness. When we are socially connected we are happier.

Finding Happiness in Life: How Can We Take Action to Connect with Others?

Given the strength of the argument, it’s sobering to note some interesting trends. In the US for example, trends over the last 25 years indicate there has been a decline in:

  • Attending club meetings (58% decline);
  • Families having dinners together (42% decline);
  • People having friends over (35% decline).

What can we do about it?

A great place to start is “Better Together”, the Bowling Alone supporting website. This useful site proposes 150 ways to start re-building social capital. (Actually there are only 145 ways listed, leaving space for you to add five of your own).

Why not start by selecting three from the list and committing to doing them. Why not start from next week?

What would be your five additional ways to re-build social capital?

It turns out that the Beatles were right. In trying to find better ways to happiness, it’s much better to “get by with a little help from our friends”.

Finding happiness in life? It’s best found when we connect with others. Bowling yes, but not alone.

Interested in reading more on re-building social capital? Download a free report which explores both the issues and possible solutions to the erosion of social capital. For many of us, work is one of the most important aspects of our lives. Finding happiness in life may mean that we’ll need to increasingly re-evaluate our approach to work. We may need to put as much into building social capital as as we put into paid employment.

In the words of the report: “We must recognize in fundamental ways that people are more important than the work they do.” So too, is our happiness.

Where to go from here:


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