Welcome to our limited series on The Science of Happiness. Introduction: here | Week One: here | Week Two: here | Week Three: here | Week Four: here | Week Five: here | Week Six: here | Week Seven: here | Week Eight: here | Week Nine: here
Week Two of the Science of Happiness is all about relationships. Whether it’s friendships, familial relationships, or affairs of the hearts, human beings are hypersocial beings that tend to be much happier in relationships than out. Now, your mileage may vary, but research suggests that people with children, people in steady partnerships, and people who have meaningful connections with others are in general happier, healthier, and report a higher overall satisfaction with their lives.
Does it just happen?
Humans are a “hypersocial” species, with social and emotional attachments factoring heavily into our biological experience of happiness. A person’s attachment style can affect how they form relationships as well as how much happiness they find in those relationships. The various attachment styles are:
- Secure: Loving, warm, trusting. People with secure attachment styles find it easy to get comfortable with others and are comfortable depending on others and having others depend on them. They tend to be happier, and are more likely to be optimistic, to forgive, to offer support to others.
- Anxious: Worried, intrusive with other people, fear of abandonment, clingy. People with anxious attachment styles have often experienced early traumas like the death of a parent, divorce of parents, of abuse. They often worry that their partners don’t love them or won’t stay with them. More prone to depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and eating disorders.
- Avoidant: Cold, aloof, dismissive. People with avoidant attachment styles find it uncomfortable being close with others and experience difficulty trusting and depending on others. They often avoid or curtail intimacy out of nervousness.
The good news? You’re not stuck with these attachment styles for life. Research shows that a highly anxious individual is paired with a highly committed, secure partner, it can counteract the negative affect of the first partner’s insecurities.
Are we designed for relationships?
The biological tools built into us seem to counter the idea that humans are basically a fight or flight, self-interested species. Ancient humans weren’t strong enough to fight off most animals or fast enough to outrun others. As a means of survival, for humans fight or flight could only go so far. But the ability to connect? To form family units, tribes, cultures? This was an evolutionary tool that worked well for humans, allowing them to pass on their DNA generation after generation.
Our bodies evolved two important features to prime us towards cooperation and community: our chemical/emotional responses to touch and to the sound of human voices. Like most primates, humans touch signals safety and trust, boosts health, and reduces stress. Our voices, far beyond mere language, are a primal form of communications. We regularly emit brief, non-verbal sounds to convey a wide range of feelings, and our intonation can draw attention or even change the meaning of certain words. This combination of verbal and non-verbal communication, and our bodies’ ability to appropriately interpret them, reveal a lot about our ability to connect with other people.
The “feel-good” chemical
The holy grail all these mechanisms is a neurochemical called oxytocin.
Oxytocin is like a neurochemical enabler of trust, devotion, and kindness. Oxytocin has also been shown to reduce stress hormones, quiet the cardiovascular response to stress, and lower reactivity in the amygdala (“lizard brain”). Thirty percent of test subjects who were given a whiff of oxytocin in a nasal spray were more generous than those who were not. Studies in non-human species indicated that rodents with increased oxytocin levels show caregiving behavior to anything around, not just their own offspring. Lots of activities are known to release oxytocin into the brain, from meditation and yoga, to physical touch and pleasant sounds.
There can be a downside to this, though. Tribalism and discrimination can also be traced back to this fiesty little chemical. According to research, “Besides loyalty to one’s own group, there would also have been survival advantages in rewarding cooperation and punishing deviants. Oxytocin, if it underlies these behaviors too, would perhaps have helped ancient populations set norms of behavior.”
Finding the balance
So how do we get the happiness benefits of relationships without devolving into tribalism and conformity? The answer is as simple as listening. Happiness Practice #2, Active Listening, gives us tools to create better communications skills, which can lead to deeper and stronger relationships. Active listening helps listeners better understand other people’s perspectives and helps speakers feel more understood. This prevents miscommunication and escalation, and increases relationship satisfaction and longevity.
I hope this week’s blog has given you something to think about and maybe to discuss with others. Please feel free to share this post. Feedback is always appreciated, and don’t forget to like us on Facebook . Comments are always open.
Please check in next week when we look at how evolution has shaped us to enjoy being kind, common obstacles to kindness and compassion, and the joy of random acts of kindness.
If you’d like to audit The Science of Happiness for free, sign up at the Greater Good Science Center here. You can also listen to the excellent podcast of the same name from Public Radio International.