For my job, I sometimes do presentations about strategies to build happiness during the pandemic. Although they are typically short talks, I research quite a bit and gather many pages of notes, because I’m a nerd like that, the topic is interesting to me, and mostly, I don’t like to get stuck stammering like a two-year-old who hasn’t yet mastered the English language (although this sometimes happens regardless…)
In the course of my research I have learned a few interesting things about happiness that really hit home, and I’d like to share them here. What strikes me the most is that many of these findings uphold ancient wisdom that we find in scripture.
Love Is the Answer
You’re welcome for the song that (I believe) will now be in your head for the next 14 hours.
But anyway, one of the most important keys to health and wellbeing is defeating loneliness and building connection.
While the pandemic was going on, we lost a lot of face-to-face contact with our peers, and we gained a lot of in-your-face contact with those in our households, and this can feel both lonely, and stressful. And as it turns out, loneliness and stress are both really bad for your health, as shown by a multitude of studies.
My favorite one though, came out of Harvard and followed graduates for 75 years (yes! Into their 90’s), looking at myriad aspects of their health and wellbeing. The principal investigator, George Vaillant, found that those with strong relationships were happier and healthier overall, and even lived longer. I love his quote: “Happiness is love. Full stop.”
Of course, this doesn’t mean that if you get sick you’re not a loving person. There are no hard and fast rules for staying healthy, but some things can help us have a higher likelihood of having a longer, healthier life, and it turns out that having loving relationships is one of the most important.
Building Strong Relationships takes REAL Communication
So, it turns out that research backs up the idea that loving others leads to a deeper sense of joy and peace. But how do we do that in the day-to-day sense of strengthening our relationships? What stood out to me most in my research on the topic was intentional communication and service.
We might set aside time to have dates with our spouse or have a meal with our children (which are really good things to do) but still miss the communication that would improve our relationships. We do need to give of our time generously, because multi-tasking is not actually something humans can do well, so when we communicate we also need to focus on the other person without the distractions of our phone, tv, etc.
But we also need to listen, not so that we can formulate a response or relate the other person’s situation to our own life, but so that we can actually understand the other person’s thoughts and feelings and better meet their needs. This is easier said than done, but it does get easier with practice.
Conversely, we need to speak clearly and openly about our own thoughts, feelings and needs even if it feels hard, rather than expecting someone else to predict or understand them automatically. There will be times when no one asks how you are, or understands how you are feeling. When that happens, you will need to reach out. It’s best to practice this type of communication regularly when things are going well, so it’s not so hard to reach out when things are not going well.
If you are alone in your household, it’s really important to make the effort to connect with other people on a daily basis. Make a list and call or text one person a day. Chat with your neighbors outside. Find an online community or a peer group that you can connect with regularly.
All of this requires constant effort, but it will require much more effort to pull yourself out of a bout of depression, anxiety, stress and illness that can sometimes come from trying to do life without meaningful connection to loved ones.
The Key to Finding Happiness is to Stop Searching for Happiness
This really hit home for me, mainly because I am slightly obsessed with trying to teach my kids strategies for staying happy, and as it turns out, the best thing I can teach them is to love and serve others.
Research shows that when we focus on being positive or happy, it can actually lead to disconnection, isolation, and having the sense of time slipping away. This is different from focusing on gratitude, or finding positive aspects of difficult situations. Being grateful for what we have is an excellent strategy for maintaining mental health.
What I’m referring to is the constant desire to shape one’s life into something that will make one constantly happy; the inward focus on fixing our emotions so that we are in a constant state of wellbeing (an impossible goal, and one that tends to make us more selfish).
Instead, we should consider how we can be of service to others. When we look outward at how we can improve life for those around us, rather than inward in how we can make ourselves feel good, our focus turns from our own feelings toward positive action. Additionally, when service becomes the goal, connection with others (and therefore happiness) naturally follow.
Please know, this does not mean that self care is not important. Everyone needs rest (this can also be found in scripture), and everyone benefits from taking care of their bodies and minds. We’ve all heard the saying, you can’t pour from an empty cup.
Search for Purpose Instead
Happiness research tells us that it’s not just pleasure that bring us happiness, but connecting to a deeper sense of purpose, which is why focusing on service is more likely to bring happiness than focusing on happiness itself.
Our work may not always be pleasurable (i.e. the current endless cycle of laundry, dishes, email and zoom), but when it is meaningful, it can be one of the major contributors to wellbeing. The kind of work we do is less important than the meaning we attach to it – it is serving others? Is it earning success for ourselves and protection for our families? These are the things that lead to fulfillment much more than the possessions our work allows us to buy, or even the experiences it allows us to have.
Feelings of happiness are often ephemeral, but the sense of fulfillment and meaning we get from connecting in a spiritual way is much more profound and lasting. For me, the greatest sense of purpose comes from my faith.
Some of the reasons that religion is good for our health and wellbeing are that spiritual practice triggers the relaxation response. For example, praying or meditating for 10 to 20 minutes twice a day causes decreased heart rate, slowed breathing, and calmer brain waves.
Faith Institutions provides us with connection, resources, and opportunities for service. Probably most importantly though, spirituality offers us a way to make sense of the world, to find hope in our existential questions about suffering and the meaning of it all.
So if you’re looking to feel a little bit happier, go ahead and exercise and do your stretches, make time for something you enjoy, and eat your veggies. That will help! But don’t neglect to go a little bit deeper too, and nurture your connections to God and to the people around you (like your mama always told you!)