About Happiness

‘Loneliness is now considered to be as bad for your health as smoking – and there is a loneliness epidemic. “The best hypothesis for which there’s good data is the idea that relationships help us manage stress,” says [Robert] Waldinger. “We know that stress is a part of life. What we think happens is that relationships help our bodies manage and recover from stress. We believe that people who are lonely and socially isolated stay in a kind of chronic fight-or-flight mode where, at a low level, they have higher levels of circulating stress hormones like cortisol, higher levels of inflammation, and that those things gradually wear away different body systems.”…

Waldinger subscribes to the theory that happiness falls into two categories. Hedonic wellbeing can be summed up as “am I having a good time right now?” he says. Then there is the Aristotelian idea of eudaimonic wellbeing: “That sense of life being meaningful and basically good.”

We don’t necessarily enjoy the things that contribute to eudaimonic wellbeing. The example Waldinger likes to give is having to read the same story to your child at bedtime when you are exhausted after a hard day. “Are you having fun? Is it hedonic wellbeing? No. But is reading that book for the seventh time the most meaningful thing you could do right then? Yes. Often, there’s this difference between what’s fun right now and what we are invested in.” Everyone needs a bit of both, he says. The problems tend to come from chasing only hedonic happiness, rather than the more mundane, but ultimately more meaningful, kind.

We are also not very good at knowing what will make us happy. It is partly cultural – we receive messages constantly that we will be happy if we buy something, or if we have more money, or if we succeed at work. “There was this really interesting survey where they asked millennials what they thought they were going to need to have a happy life, and fame was a really prevalent goal,” says Waldinger…

Waldinger is also a Zen master, having discovered the Buddhist practice in his 30s. He leads a weekly Zen group and does his own daily 25-minute meditation. “My wife calls it my great big hobby,” he says. How important is religion or spirituality to happiness? The study has found that religious people are not more or less likely to be happy, but that they find faith a solace in times of stress.

He hasn’t always been happy, of course. The times he describes as less happy are characterised by disconnection from other people. As a smalltown boy who got a place at Harvard, he was miserable and lonely for at least his first year, until he made friends. Later, when his children were small, his parents died. “It was a really difficult time for a couple of years,” he says. “That was one of those life crunches. People go through those times and it can be really hard to sustain your happiness.”

It is unrealistic to be happy all the time, which sounds obvious, but the message has become that if you are not happy, you are not doing life right. Similarly, there is an idea that happiness is something you can achieve and then relax. “The good life is a complicated life for everybody,” says Waldinger. “We study thousands of lives. Nobody is happy all the time – no one person on the planet that I’ve ever encountered. The myth that you could be happy all the time if you just do all the right things is not true. Happiness waxes and wanes.”…

Every generation feels that the world is “going to hell”, he says, “but there are some unique things happening to us”. Economic inequality is rising. “It really matters. We know that collective wellbeing goes up when more people have their needs met.” There is increasing social disconnection. “Loneliness is on the rise, but also tribalism, and that is fuelled by the digital revolution.” The study is starting to ask questions about social media usage and its effect on wellbeing. “Other research is showing that, if we use social media actively to connect with each other, that’s more likely to enhance wellbeing. But if we passively consume, that often lowers our wellbeing.”…

The quality of the relationship is important, regardless of who it is with – friend, partner, sibling, neighbour. “We asked people at one point: ‘Who could you call in the middle of the night if you were sick or scared?’ We believe that everybody needs at least one or two people like that,” says Waldinger. “If you don’t have that, you’re probably hurting.

“But then, beyond that, it really varies – a good relationship could be somebody you go to the pub with. Maybe you don’t talk about anything personal, but you don’t need to. Maybe you talk politics and it helps you feel connected and like you belong.”

Casual connections – a smile or a short conversation with the cashier in the supermarket or the bus driver – can also bring benefits. Ultimately, it comes down to connection and belonging. Join that club, don’t use the self-service checkout, text a friend and meet them, read that story again to your child – your health and happiness depend on it.’ (from the Guardian)

I have read about Robert Waldinger before; I don’t think the zen part is intrinsic to the good ideas that come out of the researchhe is involved in, but I do think our practice encourages us to do most of the things that are mentioned here.

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