Psychologists have conducted a lot of research on unhappy people, but, until fairly recently, not much attention has been paid to the study of happy people. Since we know that the vast majority of people think that happiness is extremely important and valuable, and we have seen that happiness is associated with many different aspects of well-being (physical well-being, job success, self-esteem – SEE my blog “An exercise to increase happiness” for more), psychologists have begun to focus more on happy people.
For example, in 2002, psychologists Ed Diener and Martin Seligman decided to study a group of extremely happy individuals, to examine whether there were any characteristics that distinguished them from less happy individuals. Undergraduate students at the University of Illinois were assessed on their level of happiness, using multiple measures. Over the course of the school year, the researchers also collected measures of other items that they thought might be related to happiness (e.g., religious activities, exercise, ratings of relationships, time spent with family and friends, academic grades, physical attractiveness, how much money they thought they had relative to other students, time spent sleeping).
The researchers then divided the students into 3 groups – very happy people (the top 10% on happiness measures), very unhappy people (the bottom 10% on happiness measures), and an average group (the middle 27% of the sample on happiness measures), and tried to determine in what ways the 3 groups differed.The most important characteristic that differentiated the very happy students from the other two groups was their strong ties to friends and family and their commitment to spending time with them. They spent little time alone. They reported stronger romantic and other social relationships. The happiest people were most likely to say that they had good friends. They were more satisfied with their groups of friends and more socially active.
Compared with the less happy groups, the happiest respondents did not exercise more, sleep more, participate in more religious activities, or experience more good events in their lives (although they remembered more good events in their lives than bad ones). They did not differ significantly from the other groups in terms of their school grades, stranger’s ratings of their physical attractiveness, or their perceptions of how much money they had compared to others. Social connections were the strongest correlate of level of happiness.
The very happy people were not super happy all of the time. They never reported their mood to be “ecstatic”. They occasionally had periods of unhappiness or neutral mood. Nobody is extremely happy all of the time.
Although good social relationships did not guarantee membership in the “very happy” group, high happiness didn’t appear to happen without good social relationships (i.e., a necessary but not sufficient ingredient in the recipe for happiness).
Diener and Seligman repeated their study in 2018, examining a world sample (over 160 countries) and found, again, that extremely happy people have high quality social lives, spending more hours with family and friends, reporting that they had someone they could count on to help them when they were in trouble and people in their lives who treated them with respect.
In general, satisfying, meaningful connections with other people seem to have an important relationship with happiness. It is not the number of social relationships that you have, not the number of contacts in your cell phone or the number of Facebook friends that you have. Rather, having people that you can confide in and count on, people who treat you with respect and people who you feel comfortable being yourself around are suggested to be some of the necessary conditions for happiness.
It seems to me that it would be a good idea for students to put as much effort into establishing and nourishing positive social relationships as they put into other activities that are an important part of life at University.
Take care and be good to yourselves.
This blog is not a substitute for psychological counselling. If you do feel that you are currently in a situation in which you could use some additional help with issues that you are dealing with, please check out the resources presented here.