If you look through the zillions of self-help books published every year, you’ll find a lot of people claiming to know the secrets to happiness and a fulfilling life. Clearly, people are interested in happiness psychology.
Psychologist Martin Seligman and his colleagues wrote that “at least 100 ‘interventions’ claiming to increase happiness have been proposed.”Although plenty of those claims are probably based on speculation or a single person’s experience, recent research in positive psychology has applied the research methods of psychological science to the tricky question of happiness.
As a quick aside, I recently launched an online course, How to Be Happier with Positive Psychology. It’s a fun dive into what the science of happiness reveals and how you can implement simple, tested changes in your life that can increase your happiness and sense of well-being. I thought I’d share a few of the insights from the full video course in a post on this blog.
The question of happiness has been explored for many years. You can even trace it back to the Ancient Greeks when philosophers pondered the question of what it means to give the good life. You can find discussions of happiness in old Buddhist texts as well. Fast forward to modern times, and we’re still asking those questions. There’s no question that we want to be happy.
But what is happiness, really? No doubt you’ve talked and thought about the concept of happiness many times, but how would you define it?
Well it’s clear that we’re talking about an emotion—and a positive one at that! Some sources define happiness as an “emotional state of well-being defined by positive or pleasant emotions ranging from contentment to intense joy.”
How Small Social Interactions Can Boost Well-Being
In general, social psychological research tends to show that the more we connect with the people in our lives, the happier we are.
But is this what we always assume? Are there times when you might avoid connecting to other people because you think it will make you less happy? Imagine you’re taking to the train to work, and a stranger sits down beside you. Do you think you’ll have a happier, more pleasant commute if you decide to work, read, or play a game by yourself or if you decide to strike up a conversation with this stranger?
Most people think that their commute will go more smoothly if they just keep to themselves and do their own thing. We tend to think that striking up a conversation will just waste time, and we’ll be frustrated that we gave up our precious time in order to small talk with a stranger. In fact, this is what researchers found when they polled people at a big train station: commuters tended to think that talking to a stranger would make the ride less pleasant than keeping to themselves.
So are we right? Are we really better off sitting in solitude under these conditions? Not exactly. The same researchers designed an interesting experiment. They went up to people in the train station and asked if they would participate in a simple study. They asked these commuters to ride the train that morning in one of three ways. Some people were asked to make a connection with a stranger on the train. Some people were asked to sit in solitude on the train, and the rest were told to ride the train as they always do.
Everyone was given an envelope with a short survey to complete when they reached their destination. The survey asked questions about how they were feeling and how pleasant their ride was. The commuters completed the survey and mailed it back to the researchers.
Does connecting with strangers really work? Well let’s look specifically at what this group of people was asked to do. Here were the exact instructions:
Please have a conversation with a new person on the train today. Try to make a connection. Find out something interesting about him or her and tell them something about you. The longer the conversation, the better. Your goal is to try to get to know your community neighbor this morning.
Contrary to what people expected, the commuters had significantly more positive experiences when they were asked to form a connection with a stranger on the train, compared to when they kept to themselves. Not only did they feel as though they had a more pleasant commute, but they felt better overall and importantly, didn’t feel like they were any less productive.
Happiness and “Social Snacking”
The lesson here is to have what some have called “social snacks.” Form social connections during times when you otherwise might not. Get to know other people in the world even if it won’t turn into a long-term friendship. By finding little moments to connect with people around you, you may find yourself leading a happier, more positive life.
As I said earlier, the research in positive psychology keeps growing, and there are a bunch of these little ways in which people can find greater fulfillment in their lives. Once again, I’ve compiled a bunch of these little well-being strategies into a full video course called How to Be Happier with Positive Psychology. Check it out!