I recently received two emails that asked me exactly the same question. What can I do right now to become happier? My immediate thought was “go on a wild shopping spree.” And seriously, I have seen blogs suggesting that depressed people should go shopping.
Of course, the big question is, what can I do now that will make me happier, and doesn’t have nasty side effects, such as credit card debt? Thanks to the pioneering work of “positive psychologists,” and social scientists, we now have some pretty reliable answers to that question. Recent studies show that some actions, such as communicating with loved ones, performing simple acts of kindness, or getting involved in a creative, absorbing activity (scientists call it “flow”) have an immediate effect. Or we can do some things, such as aerobic exercise, or cultivating mindfulness, that take a little while to work.
You can find many details about these discoveries on the 93 pages of this website, and especially the pages on the Science of Happiness. But in this blog we are going to cut through the technical talk and present you with a simple outline of the top priorities. Today Im talking about relationships. Many scientists agree that relationships are a huge piece of the happiness puzzle. And taking action to find happiness through relationships can be very quick, and very effective.
“Happiness Now” priority no 1: Relationships
1) Exchange thoughts with someone you know well. We have strong evidence that if you have only one person in your life that you can share your heart with, your chances of being a happy person are much greater. Face to face contact is better than phoning, and phoning is better than emailing or texting. If you don’t have a good buddy near at hand (statistics show that friendships are one of the greatest sources of happiness), it can be your mom. Why is face to face contact more effective? We are not exactly sure. Text or email is essentially an exchange of dots on a screen. Personal contact involves an amazing array of modes of communication, including sight, sound, touch and smell. We are now discovering more about our sense of smell, which picks up on a whole range of messages. We should include taste (yuk) if you are a kisser and not a hugger or a hand shaker. I am English and we don’t touch people, which is very sad. If we really like somebody we sometimes extend a limp hand. I get very confused in the U.S.
We have growing evidence that the longer people spend online, the more depressed they are, but we don’t yet know if too much time onscreen causes depression, or if depressed people spend too much time onscreen. The cause-effect relationship is still a bit of a mystery. Perhaps it’s both. The bottom line is that online relationships are not a great source of happiness. But you can of course use your online skills to build offline relationships, and apparently quite a few people meet up with their facebook pals.
What if I have no buddies and I hate talking to my mum? One of the best ways to form frendships is to go to a gym, or look in your local paper and join a club. That is because shared interests are a cornerstone of solid relationships. And as we have mentioned, you can use facebook to locate real people in your area. But get ready for rejection. That leads to the second point.
2) Don’t give up trying to reach out. One of the most deflating experiences in the world is to wear your heart on your sleeve, and have someone spit on it. And of the biggest mistakes is to assume that rejection means you’re an unattractive person. Many people are simply shy by nature, or they are introverts and try to avoid conversation. Most depressed people avoid new contacts like the plague. And so they miss out on one of the best chances to escape from depression. So if you get rejected, don’t take it personally. Try someone else. Or three, or a hundred. It’s worth the effort. Especially as the hundredth person can change your life.
3) Try listening. Famous Japanese saying: “We have two ears and only one mouth. Use in that proportion.” You might be lucky enough to know someone who is fascinated by your problems. If not, listening can work wonders. People tend to feel respected and valued in the presence of a good listener. That is one reason why psychiatrists stay employed.
4) Talk straight from the heart. The most effective kind of relationship is one that involves progressive self-disclosure. Translation: Gradually reveal more and more about yourself. Don’t spill the beans in one session. That might trigger indigestion. I’m not talking about your indigestion. I’m talking about the poor fellow who has to listen to why you hate your three ex husbands, took to the bottle, and was rescued by AA, in one sitting.
The bottom line is that, according to recent studies, people who share their innermost thoughts, step by step, are the happiest. Two of the best topics: Your greatest dreams, and your greatest headaches. It’s better to begin with the dreams. Talking about sports and celebrities is one way to begin a conversation, but at some point, we need to get personal
5) Happiness is infectious. A major study came out in 2008 showing that a happy person can affect a huge circle of people, or should I say concentric circles of people, like an infectious disease. By becoming a happier person, you are affecting many people. It seems to work both ways. As William Makepeace Thackeray famously said, “The best way to cheer yourself up is to try to cheer somebody else up.” Or as someone more humorously put it, “Happiness is like jam: You can’t spread it without getting some on yourself.”
That is the subject of next month’s blog, entitled “caring.” Many people think that caring or compassionate actions are the most effective anti depressant in the world.
I like the question “what can I do now to get happier?” and especially the word “do.” The best recipe for misery is to do nothing. If you have a mild case of the blues, don’t delay. The longer you delay, the greater the chance that you will sink into depression. And once depression hits, you are wearing snow shoes. You might need medication to get out. So get moving before the snow gets too deep. Put on some skis! As the celebrated saying goes, “Action does not necessarily bring happiness, but you cannot find happiness without action.”