Happiness is Other People

Today we’re continuing our recap of 2018 by reviewing what we learned in September.

We had already made a few jaunts into happiness by this point. We learned about the science of happiness, the intersection of money and happiness, and the philosophy of happiness.

In September we built on this base by exploring how our relationships impact our happiness.

Relationships and Happiness

We opened the month by learning exactly how important relationships are to our overall happiness.

A 70-year study out of Harvard has found that relationships matter more to our happiness than any other single factor.

On top of that, our relationships matter in every aspect of our lives. As an example, the study found that the strength of our relationships at age 50 is the best predictor of how healthy we will be at age 80.

Other studies have found relationships to be similarly important.

One study found that the biggest difference between happy people and unhappy people was that the happy folks had “rich and satisfying social relationships.” It wasn’t wealth or luck or living in sunny weather. It was relationships.

Another key finding is in studies around unemployment. People with solid relationships outside of work stay happy when they end up unemployed. People whose social encounters all come from work end up very unhappy very quickly once work is removed from their daily lives.

No matter how you look at it, there’s nothing we can do to impact our happiness more than work on strengthening our relationships.

Happiness and Marriage

The first relationship we looked at is marriage.

The statistics on marriage and happiness show us a lot of interesting things. It is important to remember, however, that you shouldn’t assume that each statistic applies directly to your marriage. If 50% of marriages end in divorce, that doesn’t mean that your particular marriage only has a 50% chance of success.

With that caveat, let’s take a quick look at the stats and the lessons we can learn from them:

  1. Marriage boosts happiness for up to two years before dropping back to normal levels.
  2. Having a baby or a teenager in the house makes spouses less happy.
  3. Overall, happiness in marriage tends to decline in the 5-10 year range and then climb back up after 20.

Lessons from the stats:

  1. The two-year boost to happiness wears off as we get used to it. This is hedonic adaptation coming back to haunt us again. Practicing gratitude and constantly reminding ourselves of what we love about our spouse can help keep that happiness boost around. Research finds that happy marriages tend to have five positive statements or behaviors between spouses for every one negative. Work to boost your ratio.
  2. Happiness declines in the 5-10 year range. This is when people are having kids and hitting peak career time. Presumably this means that they’re making less time for each other. Fight that. Stay in touch. Talk. Listen. Stay present. Make time. Block it out on your calendar. Life is busy, but if you want a happy marriage you need to make your spouse a priority.
  3. Happiness rises after 20 years. The timing of this increase tends to coincide with the kids moving out and the back side of your career. This happiness boost is likely from couples trying new things and having new experiences together again. Don’t wait 20 years! Make an effort to try new things. Go out. Travel together. Take time away from work and kids. If you’re happier in your marriage you will be a better employee and a better parent, so don’t feel guilty about taking time away.

Happiness and Kids

A natural follow-up to an investigation of marriage and happiness is one into kids and happiness.

When it comes to kids, whether they make you happier or not depends on how you define happiness and where you live.

If you use the “life satisfaction” measure of happiness – happiness in the big picture rather than day-to-day – parents and non-parents look pretty similar.

Kids add a new sense of meaning and purpose to your life, but they also add stress and take up a lot of time. Parents worry about money more than non-parents. They also spend less time on entertainment and more time on housework, errands, and childcare. As one study put it, “becoming a parent would lead to an increase in life satisfaction if only raising children didn’t take so much time and money.”

We can’t do much about the time and effort, but we can minimize financial stress by planning ahead and getting control of our finances. (For help, we can revisit our personal finance and investing articles.)

When it comes to “subjective well-being” – our moment-to-moment and day-to-day happiness – the answer is a little different.

Parents are less happy than non-parents in the United States but not in other parts of the developed world. Studies have found that this parental happiness gap between countries is “entirely explained by the presence or absence of social policies allowing parents to better combine paid work with family obligations.”

Countries that make it easier to balance work and family have happier parents. Full stop.

The two policies with the biggest impact are subsidized child care and the total number of government mandated paid sick and vacation days. When child care is affordable and parents can take days off to be with their kids, everyone is happier.

And I literally mean everyone. Even non-parents are happier in those more generous countries. The additional sick and vacation days increase the happiness of non-parents far more than the increased taxes necessary to cover the added benefits.

Helping Others

After exploring some specific relationships, we moved on to broader concepts, starting with the benefits of helping others.

The stats we have on marriages and kids show us correlation, but don’t necessarily tell us causation. We can see that marriages decrease in happiness in the 5-10 year range, but can only speculate that it is caused by busy schedules with work and kids.

The research on helping others is different. Here, we have experiments called “happiness interventions” that can establish causality rather than leaving us to guess. And what we find is that helping other people actually causes us to be happier ourselves.

In fact, doing things for other makes us happier than doing them for ourselves.

People who were given $20 by researchers got a bigger happiness boost if they turned around and spent that money on someone else than if they spent it on themselves. Similarly, people who donated a big portion of their bonus got a bigger happiness boost than people that used their bonus to pay bills, pay down debt, invest, or buy things for themselves.

We even see this in toddlers. Researchers have found that giving away their snacks to other makes them happier than eating them themselves.

So start making yourself happier by making other people happier.

Happiness and Social Media

You can’t look at happiness and relationships in the modern era without understanding the impact of social media on happiness.

Social media is a strange creature when it comes to relationships. On the one hand, we can maintain connections with more people and can build new relationships with people we’ve never met in real life. On the other hand, a lot of the interactions that we have on social media are unhealthy.

One big problem is that comparing ourselves to others makes us less happy. This means that we need to walk a fine line when we engage with others on social media.

Celebrating with and finding joy in the success of others is good. Sympathizing and showing concern for the failures of others is good. But these things must be combined with measuring your own achievements against internal standards rather than what others are doing.

If we are comparing ourselves to others, we find ourselves jealous and insecure at their success and relieved by their failures. This approach to social media is regularly seen in unhappy people.

Some people take the shortcut of comparing to people that are less successful or lucky. This can be helpful in the context of a “things aren’t so bad, I guess” mindset. But it can be unhealthy if it leads to guilt or fear. Be careful of the line between “this is not as bad as it could be” and “this is not as bad as what happened to Jim.”

The problem with social media is that it naturally leads to social comparison. Because this is a natural reaction we shouldn’t be ashamed of it. But we should fight it.

Work to catch yourself in the act. Be mindful of the way you use social media.

Social media can be great for interacting with other people, but make sure you aren’t just scrolling through your feed. When you catch yourself just scrolling, it’s time to leave the site and come back later.

Happiness and Community

We next moved into an exploration of the power of community.

Being a part of something large than ourselves boosts our happiness, our mood, and our assessment of our lives. We find that feeling in communities of all kinds.

One of the strongest places we see this is in religion. Religious people are happier than non-religious people. The happiness boost is equal across all sorts of different schools of belief. One of the reasons is that religions come with a built-in community. We immediately have belong to a network of like-minded people.

Being a part of a fan base for a sports team also provides a sense of community. People can mock adults watching sports, but that sense of being a part of something larger than yourself makes us happy. It doesn’t matter whether sports are objectively important or not, the sense of community is still a powerful happiness booster.

Studies have even found this to be true of multi-player video games. These games have you work together with other people to achieve goals. Even if you never meet these people, you are still building a relationship and being part of a community.

So whatever interests you, go find a community that shares those interests.


We ended our month of happiness and relationships on forgiving others.

Holding a grudge hurts us. We already know that anger and frustration are unnecessary anchors on our happiness. Forgiveness allows us to cut those anchors loose.

Studies have shown forgiveness leads to decreases in anxiety, depression, anger, and neuroticism. Plus, people who forgive more are happier and healthier.

It is important to remember that forgiveness is for you. It is not for the other person.

People see forgiveness as something that the other person must earn. The problem is that you can’t control their actions. Refusing to forgive someone is allowing someone else to determine how happy you are. Don’t let someone else have that level of control over your life.

If forgiveness improves a relationship, then great! But it doesn’t need to.

You can forgive someone for their actions and still end a toxic relationship with them. It is not about giving them more chances. It is about letting go of your anger.

Join the Conversation!

And there we have it! Relationships and happiness. What do you think? What have you found to be true about relationships and happiness? Got any tips for improving our relationships? Let us know in the comments!

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