"Other people matter." I say that in every positive psychology lecture I give and every positive psychology workshop I conduct. It sounds like a bumper sticker slogan, but it is actually a good summary of what positive psychology research has shown about the good life broadly construed. It is in the company of others that we often experience pleasure and certainly how we best savor its aftermath. It is through character strengths that connect us to others--like gratitude--that many of us find satisfaction and meaning in life. It is with other people that we work, love, and play. Good relationships with other people may be a necessary condition for our own happiness, even in markedly individualist cultures like the contemporary United States.
Let me go beyond these generalizations and provide two examples that illustrate that other people matter. Both were called to my attention by my friend and colleague Nansook Park. (Other people matter.)
I am reluctant to call these positive psychology case studies, as I did without hesitation in my previous blog entry about Randy Pausch ("The Last Lecture: A Positive Psychology Case Study"), because I do not know the rest of the stories. I only know what I was able to glean from some brief Internet accounts. So regard them as examples. But they're good examples and will probably stay with you as they have stayed with me.
Nancy Makin weighed 700 pounds, the result of a despair-driven spiral. The more she ate, the worse felt, and the worse she felt, the more she ate. For years, she was essentially housebound and allowed only her immediate family to see her. Then her sister gave her a computer as a gift. With Internet access and an interest in politics, Nancy Makin surfed through chat rooms and began to make friends, who of course did not judge her by her appearance.
She began to value herself and to look forward to each new day. According to her, "I was being loved and nurtured by faceless strangers ... Friends accepted who I was based on my mind and soul." And she began to lose weight. No diet. No pills. No surgery. No special exercise program. She simply stopped eating to excess, and over the next three years, her weight went away, 530 pounds at the time her story appeared. "I've heard so many times, I said it myself, if I could only lose 40 or 50 pounds, I'd be so much happier. I've found on this journey that the opposite is true." For her, feeling happier about herself started the weight loss, and feeling happier about herself was the result of her new friends.
Luke Pittard worked for McDonalds in Cardiff. When he won £1.3 million in the National Lottery, he followed a typical lottery winner script: He quit his job, bought a new house, had a lavish wedding, and went on a dream vacation. After eighteen months of his new lifestyle, he went back to work. Why? He missed his fellow workers, who welcomed him back. Said one, "Luke was always a great member of our team and when he won the lottery we were all so pleased for him ... I'm glad he has had the time to enjoy his winnings but love having him [back] here ... It's as if he never went away."
Luke Pittard acknowledges that some may think him mad for returning to a job where he makes less than the interest on what remains from his lottery winnings. But he explained that "a bit of hard work never did anyone any harm" and further that his job gave him something to look forward to every day.
These are hardly typical stories, which is precisely why I have written about them. Surfing the Internet is not a guaranteed way to lose weight, and returning to a job that pays £5.85 an hour is not a guaranteed way of avoiding the problems that can plague lottery winners. But for Nancy Makin and Luke Pittard, the good life they discovered or rediscovered was entwined with other people, who provided them with hope and meaning.
As the rest of us search for the good life, we would be well served by keeping in mind these examples and the lesson they teach. Other people matter. And we would also be well served by keeping in mind the cyberfriends of Nancy Makin and the workmates of Luke Pittard. We are all the other people who can matter so much.