5 fabulous, fool-proof ways to feel happier- based on science- part 3
In the last two blogs, I explored how vital happiness is for your health and success. You probably remember the study  that found that those with high happiness levels had, compared to their less happy friends, an average of an extra 10 years longevity.
We looked at the first 2 tips:
Tip 1 increase your sense of gratitude by using the ‘3 good things’ strategy (see here for details)
Tip 2 explored how incredibly important exercise is for happiness as well as health.
Tip 3 focuses on relationships.
Humans are fundamentally social animals. We are evolved and are wired, to work in collaboration with others in family and community groups.
Yuval Noah Harari explains this well in his book Sapiens. He asks the question, ‘Why is it that humans have become such a dominant species in the world when they don’t really have any of the key qualities you would expect from an animal at the top of its food chain?’
We don’t have the sharpest claws, the strongest muscles, the toughest hide, the fastest legs- yet we seemed to have survived and dominated despite this.
He argues that it’s our ability to communicate ideas about a particular future and to build trust in that shared future with others.
Imagine I ask you and your tribe to help me on a wild pig hunt.
I want you and your guys to go to the end of the valley and to chase the pigs towards me and my guys when we will catch them. If you choose to do this there is a chance you will expend energy or suffer injuries, so you are risking important consequences by joining in the hunt.
Importantly you will also have to trust there are pigs in the valley, that it will be worth doing, that I will catch the pigs and most vitally, that I will share them with you as I promised. But all these are things that have not happened yet. They are all currently imaginary stories, and yet you may choose to risk and expend your energy in this way.
Harari, points out, if you ask a chimpanzee if he would like 1 banana today or 15 next week, he will choose the banana he can see rather than the imaginary ones from the future. But we, as humans, are different. We may well choose future rewards, trusting the story or promised benefits will be delivered.
And this, Harari says, is why we rose to the top. This ability to communicate ideas with others about future events and to build trust in these imagined events is the key to our success.
Anatomy and physiology
There is much evidence to support the importance of building this sense of trust and community. This includes the range of physiological changes that are specifically triggered by a connection with others. Oxytocin the love hormone plays a central in this. It is released during pregnancy but also when we connect with others, when we walk, dance or sing with others and when we look someone else in the eyes. It also has powerful anti-stress and health-boosting effects (see my blog on oxytocin here for more details). Dopamine, the pleasure hormone is released when we are enjoying ourselves but has also been found to be produced during bonding experiences and social interactions [2,3].
These powerful hormones have important roles to play in improving your health and reducing damaging responses to stress.
The amygdala is the area deep within the brain that is central to how we manage stress. Its size appears to be related to how well we process threats and fear. Many studies, including those evaluating participants with PTSD , have found smaller amygdalas related to higher levels of fear conditioning. Our levels of sociability also affect our stress levels as the amygdala is smaller in those with smaller social networks.
So tip 3 is:
Get and stay connected with others.
Devote some time to building good quality nurturing relationships with loved ones, family, friends and co-workers.
The research is clear on this, forming great, healthy relationships with others is one of THE most important factors in building health and happiness. The Grant study, which started, and continues, to follow the lives of 268 Harvard students in 1938, found that good relationships are key to happiness and health. Head of the study, Robert Waldinger, says, ‘Close relationships, more than money or fame, are what keep people happy throughout their lives,.. at age 50, it wasn’t their middle-age cholesterol levels that predicted how they were going to grow old but how satisfied they were in their relationships.’
If you look through my blogs you’ll see a range of articles and free seminars on dealing with others, managing conflictual relationships, toxic behaviours, passive aggression, co-dependency and so on, as well as ways to communicate through these kinds of difficulties.
1 Diener E., Chan M.Y. Happy People Live Longer: Subjective Well-Being Contributes to Health and Longevity. Appl Psychol Health Well- Appl Psychol Health Well-Being 2011;3:1–43. doi:https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1758-0854.2010.01045.x
2 Atzil S, Touroutoglou A, Rudy T, et al. Dopamine in the medial amygdala network mediates human bonding. Proc Natl Acad Sci 2017;114:2361–6. doi:10.1073/pnas.1612233114
3 Krach S, Paulus FM, Bodden M, et al. The Rewarding Nature of Social Interactions. Front Behav Neurosci 2010;4:22. doi:10.3389/fnbeh.2010.00022
4 Morey RA, Gold AL, LaBar KS, et al. Amygdala volume changes with posttraumatic stress disorder in a large case-controlled veteran group. Arch Gen Psychiatry 2012;69:1169–78. doi:10.1001/archgenpsychiatry.2012.50
5 Bickart KC, Wright CI, Dautoff RJ, et al. Amygdala Volume and Social Network Size in Humans. Nat Neurosci 2011;14:163–4. doi:10.1038/nn.2724
6 Ahmed SP, Somerville LH, Sebastian CL. Using temporal distancing to regulate emotion in adolescence: modulation by reactive aggression. Cogn Emot 2018;32:812–26. doi:10.1080/02699931.2017.1358698
7 Denny BT, Ochsner KN. Behavioral effects of longitudinal training in cognitive reappraisal. Emotion 2014;14:425–33. doi:10.1037/a0035276