Human Beings are social animals. As far as we know we started our existence in small groups somewhere in Africa and continued this way for nearly 200,000 years living in social communities. However, many of us don’t live that way anymore. Here in the west, much more emphasis has been placed on the individual and so much has been written about self-empowerment, and wealth creation. We are told from an early age that happiness comes from success, getting a good job, a house and all the material things that go with it. Billions of pounds is spent every year advertising for stuff that will increase our happiness, full of smiley faces showing just how happy we can be with this stuff. We have a greater abundance of material things than we have ever had and there is little evidence to suggest that we will stop collecting stuff anytime soon. So, with all this abundance of material goods how come only around 17% of the population claim to be happy?
According to Johann Hari in his book “Lost connections” we have strived so much to become materially wealthy we have disconnected ourselves from each other. This has resulted in high levels of depression, anxiety, alcoholism, drug abuse, and homelessness. In order to become more “successful” we have alienated many of those around us. The pursuit of money and material wealth has in many cases, isolated us from friends and family. In a very short evolutionary time, we have gone from people living in social communities where we all looked out for each other to people focusing on our own needs in many cases excluding the needs of others. We are not meant to live like this, and the rise in cases of depression, anxiety and suicides, especially in the younger generation (up 85% since 2010) shows just how much it is hurting us
There has been so much research done to support the notion that the happiest people have the strongest human connections. Okinawa off the coast of Japan is an interesting place, it has the longest average lifespan of any modern society, with more centenarians per head of population than anywhere else in the world. Instances of heart disease, cancer and strokes are incredibly low. Okinawans don’t go to the gym or jog, and yet they live very healthy lives. There have been a number of reasons given for this, a very healthy diet, regular movement, and strong social ties. Okinawans life revolves around their communities, their family and friends. They have strong connection with their partners, their families and they share in community activities.
The 3 pillars of connection
According to Cory Keyes our happiness is dependent on our relationship with others. He claims that there are three types of relationships, our intimate relationship with a partner, our family relationships and our social relationships. Imagine our happiness is a giant ball that needs to be kept off the ground. As any Greco-Roman engineer will tell you structures are kept off the ground by building pillars. In the case of our happiness Keyes claims we need 3 pillars of social connection named intimate, family and friends. If all 3 of these are strong, we have everything we need to live a happy successful life.
So, what happens when one of theses pillars falls?
Overcoming a break-up
Anyone who has been through a relationship break up, either a divorce or splitting up from a boyfriend/ girlfriend will tell you how painful this can be. There is no doubt that take away one of our pillars and our happiness falls. Once again this has been extensively researched and the evidence suggest that those with strong family and social ties are the quickest to recover. When a relationship fails the first thing many of us do is contact a friend or family member to tell them all about it. If our happiness is to be floated up its important that we have this support. Supporting and being supported is the most natural thing in the world, its what we humans do best.
Can we be happy on less than 3 pillars?
Intimate relationships appear to be getting harder to come by. The number of single adults over the age of 16 is now outnumbering married adults for the first time. The number of people over the age of 50 who are getting a divorce is growing. So how do we deal with this and maintain our happiness? This very much depends on the size of our remaining pillars. Two large strong pillars can keep our happiness off the ground, but we need to work on this. Many people who go through a break-up throw themselves in to their work or use other means to replace their partner such as alcohol, drugs or money. Building strong relationships with friends and family takes a lot more effort and often doesn’t give instant gratification. However, time spent building relationships is the most productive way to build long term happiness. The interesting thing is, when you have built strong pillars of family and friends, those pillars are likely to help build a third pillar. Evidence suggest that people with strong family and friends are much more likely to find a strong romantic relationship than those who shut themselves away.
A quote from the book Vital friends by Tom Raith…
“At some level, everything we see, and feel is the product of a personal relationship. Look around you and see if you can identify anything created in true isolation. After pondering this for a few moments, you might notice how dependent we are on connections with other people. Remove relationships from the equation, and everything disappears”.