Learning Secrets about Happiness and Rediscovering Contentment because of COVID-19
Having written a book on the topic, a lot of people ask me, “What is the secret to happiness?”
There is no true answer to this question that is simple and short.
But seeing we have some reflection time, as we are battling the repercussions of COVID-19, this seems as good a time as any to share, what psychological science has revealed as being the 10 secrets to happiness.
So, take advantage of your proximity-downtime. Learn as many of these secrets as you can; and apply them to your current life’s circumstances. If you do, I promise you will have happiness to go along with your face masks and social distancing.
The greatest secret to happiness is having communal friendships. Individuals in communal friendships have no expectations about the giving and taking that goes on within these friendships. Most friendships are not communal, but instead are reciprocal with individuals expecting equal amounts of giving and taking in their friendships. Communal friendships are driven by empathy, which allows a person to experience another person’s emotions. When I am empathizing with you, not only am I aware of what you are feeling, it also emotionally affects me: If you are happy, then I am smiling; if you are sad, then I am frowning. Empathy is the most powerful human emotion because it allows emotions to be multiplicatively experienced. For example, if you are having a good day and feeling happy about it and you talk with a friend who is also having a good day and feeling happy about it; with empathy, you will feel twice as happy as you did when you were by yourself.
The second secret to happiness is social relationships. Social relationships can be communal but are best defined as the reciprocal relationships in our lives: family, business partners, work colleagues, Facebook friends, acquaintances, neighbors, fellow church/synagogue/mosque worshipers, classmates, fellow sports fans… None of these social relationships is necessarily more important for happiness than any other. The importance of these social relationships is its diversity and total number. Simply put, happy people have more opportunities for social interactions than unhappy people do.
The third secret to happiness is extraversion, your ability and, in some ways, your energy to put yourself into a social setting. Happy people have higher levels of extraversion than unhappy people do.
The fourth secret to happiness is optimism, your ability to put a positive light onto ambiguous and negative life situations. Happy people have higher levels of optimism than unhappy people do. The prototypical example of optimism — the optimist answering, “half full” to the question, “Is the glass half empty or half full?” — tells only a part of the story on how optimism is associated with happiness. The true measure of optimism and its association with happiness comes when situations are in-fact, negative. This is when the optimist’s attitude serves as a motivator to keep moving forward.
Beyond communal friendships and social relationships, the fifth secret to happiness is a unique relationship called marriage. Based on trust and faith in a life-long confidant, marriage makes people physically healthier. When compared to unmarried people, married people are less likely to get sick; and when they do get sick, they are more likely to recover and recover at a faster rate. In fact, married people have stronger immune systems and on average live 10 years longer than unmarried people do.
The sixth secret to happiness is employment. Employment is about friendships, social relationships, goal setting, personal achievement, and money. Employment as an adult is equal to play as a child.
The seventh secret to happiness is spirituality. Like marriage, spirituality is about trust and faith. The difference between marriage and spirituality is spirituality’s faith is ethereal. Meaning is significant when it comes to happiness. The greatest sources of distress and anxiety is ambiguity. When ambiguity is at the highest level — within the meaning of life — depression and apathy are likely to occur. Spirituality provides meaning at this highest level.
The eighth secret to happiness is subjective physical health. Subjective physical health is a person’s interpretation of their physical health and it is rooted in social comparison. For example, Maria, diagnosed with skin cancer following her annual physical, is happier than Susana, who received a clean bill of health following her physical. Maria’s first response after the diagnosis, “Thank goodness I have a treatable form of cancer!” (Her thoughts are focused on someone who has less than her; someone diagnosed with an untreatable form of cancer.) Susana’s first response after her physical, “But I am not as healthy as my sister.” (Her thoughts are focused on someone who has more than her; a sister who is an Olympic-caliber marathon runner.) As a rule, happy people socially compare their lives to those with less, whereas unhappy people socially compare their lives to those with more.
The ninth secret to happiness is democratic freedom. Two conclusions have emerged from extensive studies comparing levels of happiness among countries, cultures, and societies: (1) No matter where you are on Earth, the number-one thing people want in their lives is happiness; and (2) The more democratic a government is in ruling its people, the happier the people will be.
The last secret to happiness — which may be no secret at all to you, is money. The secret about money is how it must be used to gain happiness. If a person’s level of income threatens their basic human necessities (e.g., water, food, shelter), then having money to overcome this threat is predictive of happiness. However, once above this necessity line, the relationship between money and happiness is negligible. Beyond human necessities, happy people spend more money on others than they do on themselves, whereas unhappy people spend more money on themselves than they do on others.
In Your Control
Psychologists love to argue whether human behavior is by nature or nurture. With the ten secrets to happiness revealed, it is clear happiness is mostly by nurture; you are in control of it. The only decision for you to make now is if you are going to take advantage of knowing these secrets by applying them to your own life — during this COVID-19 crisis and beyond.
Not Secrets to Happiness
I should mention some items people often think are secrets to happiness but are not. There is no consistent scientific evidence for the following items being associated with happiness: biological sex, ethnicity, intelligence, physical attractiveness, leisure, and having children. Thus, men and women are no different from one another when it comes to being happy. No ethnic group is happier than any other is. The very intelligent are no happier than those with average or below average intelligence are. Physically attractive people are no happier than physically average and unattractive people are. People at leisure and on vacation are not necessarily happier when comparing them at work. And, being a parent makes you no happier than being a non-parent.
How about some Contentment to go along with Your Happiness?
Despite knowing and applying the secrets to happiness, happiness still can be fickle. We eventually grow accustomed to the things that bring us happiness and most of the things bringing us happiness are rooted in our environments. Thus, as time passes and environments change, so too does our happiness.
But, imagine for a moment, an emotion beyond happiness; that is, unaffected by time and changing environments.
Okay, stop imagining because this “beyond happiness” emotion is real, and it is called contentment. Contentment produces perpetual positive emotions from doing an activity — for the sake of doing it; contentment does not produce positive emotions from the activity’s causes or effects. For example, walking is an activity being used by a lot of us as temporary escapes from our COVID-19 shelter-in-place orders. And it can be a contentment activity, bringing perpetual positive emotions for us, unless we impose conditions on it, “I only walk when it is sunny outside,” “If I can’t track my steps on my Fitbit, then I don’t walk,” “My sister isn’t walking today, so I’m not walking today either.”
Contentment is nothing new; when we were children it was our primary motivator. Playing is the definitive example of contentment. The child at play gains positive emotions from playing anything. As every parent that has ever bought an expensive gift that came in a large box knows, it does not matter to the child “what” they are playing with (expensive gift or large box). The only thing that matters is they are playing.
In addition to you applying the 10 secrets to happiness over the next several weeks, I challenge you to reflect upon, then practice your contentments. We all have contentments in our lives, activities we do without conditions: I teach — anytime, any topic, to anyone; I cycle — anytime, anywhere, on any bike; I cook — anytime; any cuisine, by any means… What are your contentments?
Lastly, if it helps you apply the secrets of happiness and practice your contentments, here is a free copy of my book on happiness, Being: Your Happiness, Pleasure, and Contentment.
To Hell with COVID-19, here is to your happiness, contentment, and health!
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Dr. Don Lucas, Ph.D. is a Professor of Psychology and head of the Psychology Department at Northwest Vista College in San Antonio Texas. He loves psychology, teaching, and research.
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