What makes people happy? Is it simply having money, or does happiness stem from transcending our material lives and working to build social networks and communities? John Helliwell and colleagues, from the University of British Columbia in Canada, have found that happiness can have an economic basis, but that the quality of social relations is a more reliable basis for individual happiness.

Helliwell and colleagues have been studying the extent to which income level is a predictor of life satisfaction compared to the quality of a person’s social relations. They have found that the role of community that is built through prosocial behavior builds social capital which creates the most reliable source of happiness. Their most recent study, “Social Capital and Well-Being in Times of Crisis” was published online in Springer's Journal of Happiness Studies in June 2013.

The current UBC study looks at the relative roles of social capital and income as determinants of happiness. Evidence from countries in economic transition has demonstrated the importance of social trust. Helliwell found that social trust is a valuable indicator of the quality of a country's overall social capital, which directly reflects the collective happiness and resilience in the face of external crises or economic recession.

What is social capital and prosocial behavior?

Social capital is the personal or economic benefits derived from creating strong social networks. Social connectivity not only impacts the happiness levels of individuals and groups, it makes people more resilient in times of crisis. John Helliwell has found that humans are happier when they practice prosocial behavior and 'do the right thing.' According to Helliwell, “Communities that stick together and do good for one another cope better with crises and are happier for it.”

Prosocial behavior, or "voluntary behavior intended to benefit another,” consists of actions which "benefit other people or society as a whole," "such as helping, sharing, donating, co-operating, and volunteering.”

Ideally, prosocial behavior occurs when someone is altruistic and helps another person without expecting something in return. More realistically, prosocial behavior is a blend of empathy and concern about the welfare and rights of others, combined with egoistic or pragmatic motivations. Many studies have confirmed that prosocial behavior and social connectivity are key to well-being. Empathy has deep roots in our evolutionary biology. The warm fuzzy feeling we get from being nice is woven into our human nature and is universal.

Social Capital + Trust = Resilience

How does the social fabric of a community or nation affect its capacity to deal with crises and to develop resources that maintain and improve people's happiness during those difficult times? "Communities and nations with better social capital, in other words, quality social networks and social norms as well as high levels of trust, respond to crises and economic transitions more happily and effectively," according to Helliwell and his team.

Helliwell and colleagues are studying how the social fabric of a community or nation affects its capacity to deal with crises and to develop human and natural resources in ways that maintain and sustainably improve subjective well-being.

Three types of crisis were used as examples. These included: economic crises; transition and other institutional crises; and conflicts over sustainable resource use. The bulk of their research focuses on economic crises and institutional transitions, and shows that communities and nations with better social capital and trust respond to crises and transitions more happily and effectively.

The recent UBC paper makes an assessment of social capital and happiness during the years of the global economic crisis of 2007-2008 in 255 metropolitan areas in the United States. The researchers found that an increase of social capital improved America’s happiness during the period of economic crisis, both directly and indirectly by mitigating the impact of rising unemployment.

Helliwell and colleagues also take a broader perspective by examining national average happiness in OECD countries after the global financial crisis. The researchers grouped countries according to their levels of happiness and found:

  • The group with rising happiness includes countries less directly affected by the crisis, with policies well chosen to enhance the well-being of their residents – as in South Korea, for example.
  • The group with falling happiness includes those countries worst hit by the original crisis, and by its subsequent spillovers in the Euro zone. In this group, social capital and other key supports for happiness were damaged during the crisis and its aftermath.

Conclusion: The Virtues of Prosocial Behavior are Timeless

Prosocial virtues such as trust and reciprocity are at the core of community. Helliwell has found that humans are more than simply social beings, they are what he calls “pro-social” beings. Human beings derive happiness not just from doing things with others, but from doing things both with and for others.

In 300 BC, Aristotle was teaching and writing about the importance of a society that values partnerships and associations. Aristotle believed that individuals existing alone in a state of autonomy and isolation couldn't be self-sufficient. For Aristotle, the connections that individuals and society built were “virtuous, just, and good.” Being pro-social as a virtue meant more than just being “efficient” in a pragmatic and potentially self-serving way. In The Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle says,

“Now by self-sufficient we do not mean that which is sufficient for a man by himself, for one who lives a solitary life, but also for parents, children, wife, and in general for his friends and fellow citizens. Consequently, motivated by the need to improve their lives, individuals join with others to transform the household into a city. . . [Man] alone has a perception of good and bad and just and unjust and other things [of this sort] and partnership in these things is what makes a household a city.”

Making prosocial behavior the norm creates an upward spiral. In a society where people helping one another is the societal norm, there is a reduction of anxiety and stress. In a community where social capital and trust is strong, you know that if you need help someday someone will help you in the same way you helped someone previously. What goes around comes around... Demonstrating prosocial behavior is contagious. You can lead by example at home, work, and in your community. The more people using positive actions to build social capital the more resilient and happy our societies become.

John Helliwell concludes, “the power of human nature and the suggestion that the core goal of public policy should be to facilitate the development of institutions that bring out the best in humans.” When communal values are more central to people’s sense of self than economic wealth it appears that social capital flourishes and provides a more stable and enduring basis for happiness.

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