If you believe the ads, happiness is to be found in being rich, ‘successful’, good-looking and the envy of your friends. Ads appeal to our inborn desire for something better than the status quo; an instinct that evolutionary psychologists would say has prompted human civilisation to improve and evolve.
In reality, of course, those things don’t necessarily make us happy. Even worse, research has shown that focussing on wealth, status and looks is associated with poorer mental health and more difficulty in relationships. In The High Price of Materialism, Tim Kasser reviewed a multitude of scientific studies which linked a materialistic outlook with lowered levels of life happiness.
On the other hand, happiness is closely associated with a less individualistic, more socially focussed attitude to life. People who volunteer in their communities are generally happier than those who don’t, and, conversely, people who are happier are more likely to volunteer.
Experiments have shown that people in a happy mood are more likely to help a stranger in trouble. For example, a person who pretended to trip and fall in the lobby as people were coming out of a movie theatre was more likely to be helped by people coming out of a comedy or a feel-good movie, rather than by people who had just seen a depressing film.
All this demonstrates that low mood and a narrow focus on oneself go hand in hand, making for a downward spiral; whereas happiness is linked with a widening of focus to include care for others, creating an uplifting spiral of happiness.
It seems there’s a lot of wisdom in the age-old saying: “If you want to cheer yourself up, try cheering somebody else up.”
Stephanie Hills ©