Can Relationships Really Make Us Happy?

When we feel love and kindness toward others it not only makes others feel loved and cared for, it helps us also to develop inner happiness and peace.
— Dalai Lama

Ultimately, the pathway to a joyful life depends on our ability to tap into our inner happiness. Despite this, there are a host of external factors that can make our quest a whole lot easier.

Satisfying relationships are one of these factors. In fact, it’s fair to say they play a starring role. Numerous studies have shown that positive meaningful relationships boost our happiness levels, improve our health, and can even help us live longer.

Invest time and energy into your relationships and they’ll reward you tenfold.

Surround yourself with happy people

Turns out happiness is contagious, so if you know and spend time with happy people, you’re off to a great start. The Framingham Heart Study – an American study which began in 1948 and is now on its third generation of participants – clearly shows that our own happiness is linked with the happiness of others. And we’re not just talking our closest mates. The study revealed that a person’s happiness level can influence up to three degrees of separation. That’s not just your friends, but your friends’ friends – and even your friends’ friends’ friends! Specifically,  we are 15.3% more likely to be happier when we know another happy person directly (first degree), followed by 9.8% and 5.6% for second and third degrees.

Geography matters too – when a happy friend lives within a couple of kilometres from us, the probability that we are happy skyrockets by a whopping 25%.

And here’s some even better news. The study found that each additional friend increases your chances of happiness by about 9%. The moral of that story? It’s never too late to make new friends and become happier. Now I know it’s not always easy to make new friends, especially as we get older, but sometimes all you need is a slight shift in attitude.

Open yourself up to building new friendships with these three mindset changes:

  • Assume positive intent – try to always think the best of people not the worst. OK, so maybe the first time you meet someone they seem rude or off hand, but instead of automatically taking a dislike to them, try and consider the possible circumstances behind their behaviour. Maybe something really stressful is going on in their lives, they’ve just lost their job, have a sick loved one, or are under financial pressure. Giving people the benefit of the doubt and assuming their intentions are good changes your state of mind from closed and defensive, to open and aware.
  • Think “us” and “we”, not “I” and “me” – science suggests that the self-centred among us are less happy. For a start, no one likes hanging out with self-obsessed people, so it’ll be harder to make friends. Plus, studies show that focusing more on our relationships with others is  best for long-lasting, authentic happiness.
  • Learn how to forgive – Buddha said, “Holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.” Hold a grudge and the only person that really suffers is you. Practice forgiveness and you’ll become happier almost immediately.
    Or in the words of Drake: “Grudges are a waste of perfect happiness. Laugh when you can. Apologise when you should and let go of what you can’t change.”

Be kind and generous

There’s a good reason kindness is a core teaching within almost every religion on the planet. Being kind has a profoundly positive effect on our inner wellbeing – in fact it’s a proven path towards happiness. Even the most ardent non-believers among us would struggle to deny how good it feels to practice a little kindness and generosity. Make someone’s day by helping them out, taking the time to have a chat, or even just giving them a smile.

In a study carried out by University of California psychology professor Dr. Sonia Lyubomirsky, students were tasked with carrying out five random acts of kindness each week for six weeks. At the end of the study, their happiness levels had shot up by 41.66%. Meanwhile, other studies have shown that even just thinking about being generous and kind can trigger a happiness reaction in our brains.

It has been proven that people who behave generously are happier than those who make selfish decisions, and according to the World Happiness Report, generosity is one of the six variables that consistently influence happiness.

So how can we become kinder and more generous?

  • Be generous with your time – volunteer . Researchers from the University of Exeter reviewed 40 studies on volunteerism and discovered people who volunteer suffer less from depression, enjoy greater wellbeing and much higher life satisfaction. Some studies even showed volunteers had a 22% lower mortality rate.
  • Be generous with your money – lots of people think that spending money on themselves will make them happier than spending it on others, but actually the reverse is true. There are numerous studies that show people report greater happiness when they spend their money on others or donate it to charity, than when they spend it on themselves.

Get a Furry Friend

It’s not just our two-legged friends that can help us increase  our happiness. In fact, psychologists have discovered that many pet owners feel they get as much joy  from their pets as they do from their  family. Pet  owners tend to be happier, healthier and better adjusted than those of us without a furry friend. Researcher Allen McConnel discovered that the social support provided by pets is comparable to that of a family member, and – among other benefits – pet owners exercise more, suffer less from depression and loneliness, and enjoy greater self-esteem.

Flying solo

So far, we’ve focused on social connections – friends, family, pets, and the wider community. But what about our romantic relationships? Does getting married make you happy?

Yes and no. A really good marriage can go a long way toward helping you gain authentic, lasting happiness. But judging by the high rate of divorce, it can also contribute to misery, stress and discontent.

One study of 24,000 people in Germany over 15 years revealed that getting married triggers a short bump in happiness, but two years down the track, couples settle back into the same levels of happiness they had pre-wedding day. They also discovered marriage brings bigger benefits to some people than others.  If you’re already sociable, have heaps of friends, and generally a happy life, tying the knot won’t have a noticeable impact on your overall sense of happiness. It’s those of us who don’t have a strong social network who enjoy the biggest happiness boost when partnering up.

Practice Self-compassion

It’s all very well practicing loving kindness to those around you and having a list of friends a mile long – but unless you are kind to yourself as well, you really won’t feel much happier. A bunch of psychological research has been undertaken in this area, with some surprising results. Turns out people who find it easy to be supportive and understanding often score surprisingly low on self-compassion tests.

A University of Texas psychologist Dr. Kristin Neff has developed a self-compassion scale to help people measure their own levels of compassion for themselves. Take this test to find out if it’s time to lighten up and give yourself a break…

Rate the questions below on a scale of 1 (less likely to feel that way) to 5 (very likely to feel that way).

  • I’m disapproving and judgemental about my own flaws and inadequacies
  • When I’m feeling down, I tend to obsess and fixate on everything that’s wrong
  • When I fail at something important to me, I become consumed by feelings of inadequacy
  • When times are really difficult, I tend to be tough on myself
  • When I see aspects of myself that I don’t like, I get down on myself
  • When things are going badly for me, I see the difficulties as part of life that everyone goes through
  • When something upsets me, I try to keep my emotions in balance
  • When something painful happens, I try to take a balanced view of the situation
  • When I fail at something important to me, I try to keep things in perspective
  • I’m tolerant of my own flaws and inadequacies

Scored low on the first five questions and high on numbers six through ten? Great stuff, you’re doing an awesome job of practicing self-compassion.

Scored high on the first five questions and low on the rest? OK, it sounds like you’re pretty tough on yourself. Start giving yourself a break by trying some of Dr. Neff’s recommended self-compassion exercises.

  • Imagine you’re a friend and write yourself a letter listing your best and worst traits and remind yourself that nobody is perfect.
  • Make a list of steps you can take to feel better about yourself.
  • Take “compassion breaks” – time out to repeat mantras such as “I’m going to be kind to myself in this moment”.

And to finish off, here are seven easy steps you can take to be kinder to yourself on a daily basis:

  • Make time for “me” time – whether that’s going for a run, meditating, writing in a journal, or curling up with a coffee and a magazine, do something you love every day.
  • Celebrate your achievements – so often we’re quick to recognise the achievements of others, but we can’t see our own. Next time you do something you are proud of, stop for a minute and acknowledge it. Pat yourself on the back.
  • Grow your inner advocate – we all know too well the voice of our inner critic but try cultivating that other little voice in your head, the one that defends you and supports you and is kind to you.
  • Respect yourself – value yourself for who you are, trust yourself, look after yourself. You deserve it and you are worth it.
  • Forgive yourself – as we’ve already discussed, practicing forgiveness is a stepping stone to happiness, but that doesn’t just mean forgiving others. Learn to forgive yourself too. When you make a mistake or do something wrong be kind to yourself, afterall everyone messes up sometimes. Pick yourself up by reminding yourself of your past successes and come up with a plan for dealing with what happened. Then move on!
  • Focus on your attributes – everyone has good and not-so-good qualities. The problem is, when it comes to ourselves, we tend to focus more on the negative. This needs to change! Always remind yourself of your good qualities and you’ll walk taller and be whole lot happier.
  • Stop trying to be perfect. Know you are enough – perfection is unachievable, so if you’re striving to be perfect, you’re just setting yourself up for failure. Instead pour all your energy into accepting yourself as you are, with all your strengths and weaknesses, all your successes and failures. Like everybody else on this planet you are worthy, and you deserve to be happy. And most important of all, nothing has to happen to make you worthy.

YOU ARE ALREADY ENOUGH.