Have you noticed that when you’re happy, you connect more easily with other people? It’s not just because people are more drawn to you when you smile – it’s also that you actually see things differently. When you’re happy, you tend to see the bigger picture, rather than get hung up on details. You’re more open to new ideas, you learn more quickly and come up with more creative solutions to problems. You’re also more likely to see the good in other people and to be more understanding about their problems.
Evolutionary psychologists say that each of our emotions serves a purpose for survival. Fear and disgust tell us what to avoid; anger tells us what needs changing; and happiness tells us to keep things as they are. To avoid or change particular things, we need to focus on what we don’t want – whereas to maintain things as they are, we need to have a wide vision, appreciating all the good things in our lives. This is why negative emotions make us narrow our focus and positive ones make us look more broadly.
And the converse is also true: if we focus on something we don’t like, it brings us down; whereas if we notice the bigger picture, it makes us feel better. So if we make an effort to connect with other people and if we use compassion rather than judgement, we find we feel happier. We also get on better with others and find more creative solutions to interpersonal difficulties.
This is why I say happiness is not just an individual phenomenon but a social one. Happiness is closely linked with sociability. It’s an attitude, it’s a way of relating – and it’s catching.