Modern happiness has certain tropes associated with it — money, success, comfort. But social scientists are finding that generating happiness in your life may have less to do with an arbitrary number — like your bank account or how many Instagram followers you have — and more to do with how well you connect with the people around you.
Laurie Santos teaches a course on happiness and well-being at Yale University and hosts a podcast on the science of happiness. She said that traditionally, scientists break happiness down to two components: emotional — whether we're laughing, feeling peaceful, even joyful — and cognitive — do we feel satisfied with our life right now?
The problem? Those data points are entirely in our heads, so we can misconstrue other markers of success for reasons we should feel or think we are happy.
"Our minds lie to us about the kinds of things that make us happy," said Santos, speaking to Steve Paulson for "To The Best Of Our Knowledge." "We often think it's money. It's moving to a beach house. It's buying lots of awesome material possessions like cars and clothes and so on. All those things contribute to happiness a tiny bit, but not nearly as much as we think."
Santos said money does have links to happiness, but not in the ways we might think.
"If you're right now living below the poverty line, you know if you can't put a roof over your head or food on the table, it is true that getting more money is going to increase your well-being," said Santos. But only to a point. Psychologist Daniel Kahneman and economist Angus Deaton examined Gallup data and concluded that beyond $75,000 a year, money doesn't really make us any happier.
Generally, to the extent that it affects how happy we are, money gives us more opportunities to take time off and to take care of ourselves with exercise and regular sleep.
"Those are the things that really impact our well-being and we don't really notice them. And that means we don't really seek them out as much as we should," Santos said.
Lynne Segal, author of "Radical Happiness: Moments of Collective Joy," said historic research into happiness — particularly attempts to measure it — goes wrong by ignoring this collective aspect to experience happiness.
"I think what the science of happiness gets wrong is that it's seen as some sort of individual attribute," said Segal, speaking to "To The Best Of Our Knowledge" producer Shannon Henry Kleiber. Segal sees the modern world as full of systems that rank and display our attributes as measures of worth, including how happy we are. But she argues that becoming a happier person isn't about changing a point value — it's about building connections with people, and being able to share ourselves.
Santos agrees with this aspect of shared joy. Across the board, the science says that our happiness level is boosted by being around other people, she said.
"Joy can be magnified if we're around others," said Santos. "We all know that intuitively — if you're watching a really funny movie by yourself, that's pretty good ... But if you're watching a really funny movie with your best friend — you're looking over, and sharing the laughter together — that kind of feels a lot better."
Santos pointed to work by psychologist Erica Boothby showing that simply sharing in the same activity with someone — even if you aren't speaking with them — can make you experience more pleasure.
"She has subjects eating a piece of chocolate while another subject — one that they don't know — is eating a piece of chocolate at the same time," said Santos. "And so you're both engaging in this positive activity together, and what she finds is that the chocolate that you're eating actually tastes more delicious when you're enjoying it at the same time another person is enjoying that chocolate too."
Santos said this is because of automatic mechanisms we have as a species, the emotions we experience — good or bad — get more intense when we experience them together.
This also explains why negativity tends to spread like wildfire given the right context — a toxic office environment, for example.
"The psychologist Sigal Barsade has a wonderful term — 'affective spirals,'" said Santos. "One Debbie Downer's bad mood will get caught by the rest of the people in the team, and then their bad mood is going to transmit to other people."
As more people commiserate, complain or transpose their bad mood onto another person, the emotion involved gets bigger and more intense.
But the upside is that this principle works for positive content too — we can seed some joy and positivity into the days of people around us, hoping it will grow.
"You can do that in your teams at work, you can do that in your families, you can even do that on social media — one wholesome happy post that you post about your joy can spread to other people too," Santos said.
So apart from trying to spread a little joy throughout our offices and social feeds every day, what are those activities we can engage in? Santos said it's all about social connection.
"Hanging out with a good friend or a family member that you haven't seen in a long time, or just striking up a conversation with a stranger on the street," Santos said. "Research shows that happy people are different in part because they just spend more time with other people. So we can kind of bump up our happiness quotient simply by just talking to other people."
For Segal, when it comes to trying to become a happier person, she said finding people to share our joys and miseries with is the best possible step we can take, because it helps us feel seen.
"A lot of the time I think we do feel that we're sort of nobody, and nobody is taking any notice of us or paying any interest to us," said Segal. "We want to feel that at least our lives matter to other people and other people's lives matter to us."
Segal said this goes beyond refining our scientific understanding of happiness. Encouraging us to embrace the collective nature of elevating how happy we are connects directly to how well a democratic society as a whole functions.
"Part of our problem today is that only certain people feel able to be significant in the world at large — to be able to stop worrying about where the next paycheck is going to come, whether they're going to be thrown out of their houses, and so on," said Segal. "A truly democratic society, as I see it, is a society with much greater equality, so that everyone can actually play a role in that democracy."