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The One Thing To Know About Happiness

The human craving for simplicity

After an hour long talk about happiness in a Buddhist bookstore in Berlin, a very smart looking, middle-aged man posed the one question to which I had come so accustomed in America, “If you had to boil it down, what would you say is the most important ingredient to happiness?” Having spent practically all my life exploring the subject, having meditated for decades and concocted a theory for a dozen years, every fiber of my body resisted to give out “the secret.” Preposterous. As my head was gesturing “No,” I started to chuckle to ease the tension between me and an audience that looked suddenly hungry, demanding simpler, more digestible food for thought than I, apparently, had offered.

I can’t deliver. My book would sell like hot potatoes if I could. Believe me, I wish I could. I really do. Happiness as a phenomenon can be boiled down to a phrase such as “relating and engaging fully in life,” but not its ingredients. It is as if I were asked about what makes good vegetable soup. Is the water less important than the vegetables? Is the cook, pot and fire any less essential than the edibles? So, don’t ask me to choose; I can’t boil it down. “Sorry.” Chuckle.

“What if someone held a gun to your head? What would you say, if you had to simplify?” he insisted half-seriously, half-jokingly, with the former expression having the far greater impact on me. Was I about to let him and maybe the entire audience down? Was I actually just failing to prioritize?

I decided to go with the life-threatening scenario, letting myself feel the heat in my neck. No more chuckling, slightly choking, I solemnly uttered the following words:

“It’s got to be love. Love for your life. Love for others. Love.”

The audience took an audible, communal breath, obviously relieved, applauding. I knew it was a good answer, albeit hardly original. Of course I knew that connections are the salt of the fluid experience of happiness and had already said so in my book ( Chapter Six ). Indeed, the study of all happiness studies, the super long longitudinal Harvard Study that had begun in 1939 shows that relationships are the greatest predictor for happiness, healthy and even monetary success. Company has a much greater impact than believed when the study was started while its opposite, loneliness, turns out to be a real killer (see also blog: What’s love got to do with it? ). These results ring true to us and they also made immediate sense to my audience. But did this simpler answer really simplify matters? I have my doubts, and here is why:

Shifting the subject from a holistic view of happiness to relationships does not make our actual life easier. Most people find it very difficult to engage and keep engaged in meaningful relationships. Ty Tashiro points out in his book “The Science of Happily Ever After” that only three out of ten couples are healthy, happy, and functional after only a few years of marriage. So our next question may be, “What is it that makes relationships tick?”

A simple answer here is also possible, namely that relationships depend on kindness, an answer that has been suggested by many researchers. For example, John Gottmann observed 130 newlywed couples’ basic requests for connection, such as one partner saying to another, “Look at that bird.” The receiver of this request could now either “turn toward” or “turn away” from the other, giving or not giving positive attention to the mundane request. Couples who divorced after six years had only given positive attention 33 percent of the time to the other, while those who considered themselves happy had turned to the other with positive attention 87 percent of the time. Simply showing interest and lending support to the other is a single great predictor for the success of relationships. 1 Other researchers concur, such as Shelly Gable whose research shows that being kind and generous on a daily basis is even more important than being there for each other during a crisis. 2

Now that we know that kindness is the most important ingredient to relationships and thus ultimately to happiness, we can ask of course what enables us to be kind. Eventually this discussion would lead us into the subject of the calm and peaceful mind, the mind that is not in a constant state of wanting to “fight or flight.” Apparently this is in itself a huge subject. I could continue with more pointed questions, revealing only seemingly answers that we can readily live.

Undeniably, questions can lead to insight, especially as we pick the brains and research of others. Also, admittedly, I have offered “ten steps to this” and “two wings of that” many times with my blogs because “boiling it down” can be truly inspirational. However, instead of expecting a short-cut to “the truth,” an easy way out, we are much better off embracing human complexity and the need to wrestle with our highly personal circumstances.

Our wish to simplify is strong, and humanity depends on learning from others. Thankfully, we do not need to invent the wheel or figure out to make fire. But when it comes to our personal suffering, to feelings and the quest for meaning and happiness, there are no easy paths that other minds can discover for us. We need to find our path as we walk it. Just as social media cannot fix our loneliness with simple, but incomplete relationships, just as Siri can only provide information and not meaning, knowledge -- however well-packaged -- cannot replace human growth. Happiness may be boiled down to a single variable, a quantum if you will, but it is you who needs to do the “How to” of the leaping.

1. http://www.businessinsider.com/lasting-relationships-rely-on-traits-2015-11
2. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17059309

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© 2016 Andrea F. Polard, PsyD. All Rights Reserved.

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