If you believe that greater happiness is something you can achieve on your own, think again. In his groundbreaking A Primer in Positive Psychology, Chris Peterson summarizes positive psychology in three words: "Other people matter." Happiness resides in the individual, in one-on-one relationships (dyads), and within groups. Although we can achieve happiness alone, we are biologically wired and evolutionarily selected to find happiness in our relationships with others. Pursuing happiness with others is the surest – and easiest – path to happiness and well-being.
Peterson lists 24 "signature personality strengths" which can be broadly divided into strengths of the heart and strengths of the mind. Strengths of the heart tend to direct our focus towards others, while strengths of the mind tend to direct our focus on ourselves. Signature personality strengths among people who focus on others and the heart include gratitude, love, kindness, and forgiveness, while mind/self strengths include learning, perspective, perseverance, and self-regulation. As Peterson discovered, the most common strengths, among both children and adults, are kindness, fairness, gratitude, and love. Clearly, humans are good at obtaining happiness through others and the heart.
Leading positive psychologist Martin Seligman agrees, noting that an individual's well-being and happiness rest on three "pillars": positive emotion, positive relationships, and meaning:
- Positive emotion can come from internal or external sources. We can "feel happy" because of our internal state. We can also derive positive emotion from a one-on-one relationship, and positive emotion within groups is infectious. Research into the quality of daily experience demonstrates that people report the most positive emotion when they are with friends. Our social connections fulfill our need for attachment to one another and produce positive emotion.
- Positive relationships are formed within dyads and groups. The key to increasing happiness, however, is choosing the right relationships. Peterson notes, "having friends is a consistently robust correlate of life satisfaction and well-being. However, the conclusions about the benefits of friendship must be qualified by whether the friends in question are supportive or not." Cultivating relationships is not sufficient for happiness. We must be intentional about cultivating positive, supportive relationships.
- We find meaning when we act in accordance with our closely held values. Values can be held at the individual, dyadic, or group level. In The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom, Jonathan Haidt notes that altruists and altruistic activities produce happiness. This is the scientific basis behind the proverb that "it is better to give than to receive." It may be true that nobody is a pure altruist, but it is also true that people will act in the service of others for no benefit other than the happiness it brings. Meaning also explains why people who have children sacrifice significant moment-to-moment happiness in order to establish a close bond and a legacy. A distinction between dyads, smaller groups (such as family), and larger groups is that in dyads and smaller groups, we tend to experience deep meaning for a significant investment of effort, whereas in larger groups, we tend to experience small doses of meaning for a smaller amount of effort.
A growing body of empirical research indicates that happiness can be increased within individuals, dyads, and groups. Supportive groups and meaningful relationships are the most common, easiest, and most effective paths to happiness. Another equally easy tactic is to act extraverted. Numerous research studies have shown that, even if you're introverted, you can significantly increase your happiness by acting as if you are extraverted. Acting extraverted increases your connection to other people and increases your happiness. This is a finding that anyone can embrace and immediately pursue in their lives.
Groups and dyadic relationships are the "low-hanging fruit" to creating more happiness in our lives. To easily and quickly increase your happiness, focus on increasing the quality and quantity of supportive relationships you have with other people, as well as expanding your extraversion. Reaching out to others allows you to reach new heights of happiness.
Steve Safigan is a founding staff member and member of the board of directors of Foundations Workshops Canada, a Canadian non-profit organization that delivers personal-development training at moderate prices. By lowering the traditionally high cost of personal-development training, the organization enables a wider segment of the general population to take advantage of the benefits of personal-development training. Claim your free copy of the organization's e-course, "The 7 Keys to Building Character" here.