THE BLOG

Is Happiness Selfish?

01/05/2015 12:54 BST | Updated 01/05/2016 10:12 BST

Want to be happy?

Ultimately, above all else, what do you want from your life? Or, if you have kids, what do you ultimately hope for them? Ask most people these questions and the usual response is 'I want to be happy' or 'I want them to be happy'. Yet do we know what this really means and what it takes for what we focus on in our lives?

Academics may debate long and hard about precise definitions of happiness (and this is important for scientific research) but in our day-to-day lives, if we probe a little deeper, most of us intuitively know that the happiness we hope for is multi-faceted. Pleasure and enjoyment are part of it for sure, but also something more, a sense of fulfillment or meaning perhaps.

These two don't always go hand-in-hand. We know that if we are striving for a goal (eg getting better at a sport, passing exams, learning a new skill, progressing at work) it isn't always enjoyable, but when we get there we can look back with pride or satisfaction.

However, a little pleasure along the way can help us get there. Research into pleasurable emotions, although fleeting, can have real benefits over time and so may just help us achieve out goals. For example 'positive' emotions broaden our perceptions, helping us to be more open to others, solve problems and be more creative. Little by little this helps us learn and develop our skills.

Scientific research is also showing that wanting to be happy isn't just a nice to have it seems there may be some real benefits of being so.

Individual benefits of happiness

There is a growing body of scientific evidence on the links between happiness and a number of different beneficial outcomes. For example, people who are happy are more likely to be physically health, have greater immunity, be less likely to catch colds, be at lower risk of heart attacks, recover quicker from illness and more likely to take care of our bodies.

At work there seem to be potential benefits too. Happier people are more likely to be engaged in their jobs and committed to their organisations, be more productive, flexible and creative and they may even earn more.

Is happiness selfish?

So we want to be happy and, as we've seen above, there are benefits from being so, but isn't it selfish to be focused on our own happiness?

Well, it seems not. People who are happy are also likely to be better citizens - they are more likely to vote, help others and be financially responsible and they are less likely to engage in risky behaviours.

More over, it seems happiness is catching. In fact a study by Harvard scientists has shown that our happiness can have a ripple effect out to those around us - not just to those people we are in direct contact with but people up to three degrees of separation away. In other words, our happiness can impact our friends' friends' friends and theirs can impact us.

What this suggests to me is that focusing on our own happiness isn't purely selfish and may actually be a responsibility for all of us, since how we are impacts other people. Of course this doesn't mean we should never be unhappy. Life has ups and downs and unhappiness is a normal response to the latter. But perhaps it compels us to be aware of how we are feeling and what we can do to become happier, even if this takes time.

Other people and our happiness

The interconnection between our own happiness and that of others is even more strongly intertwined. It seems that caring about other people is integral to being happier ourselves.

Psychologists have shown that feeling connected to other people is fundamental to our individual psychological wellbeing. Indeed, lack of social support may be as threatening to our mortality as smoking or obesity. There also seems to be a virtuous circle - when we help others, not only does it (hopefully) make them happier, but it does the same for us too. Evidence from neuroscience has shown that doing kind acts for others actually activates the reward centre in our own brain (rather like receiving a gift or eating chocolate!).

This makes sense - human beings are a social species, we've evolved to live in groups. Caring about others' happiness could therefore be a kind of 'social glue' that connects us together. Indeed, communities where people know their neighbours have higher trust and so less fear and higher wellbeing. At work it's similar too, good relationships with our colleagues and especially our boss, impact how we feel and how we perform and how the organisation does overall.

Small things that make a difference

There are lots of evidence-based actions we can take to become happier, but let's focus on our connections to other people.

The great news is that small things can make a real difference. In fact some studies show that short positive interactions as little as a few seconds can contribute to higher psychological wellbeing. How nice is it when someone notices what we've done and says thank you, or actively listens to our ideas, or takes a real interest in something we're pleased about by simply asking a few questions to find out more?

So why not decide today to consciously do these things with the people you're in contact with. Or choose a day when you go out of your way to do small acts of kindness for others - noticing someone who needs help carrying their bags, giving up your seat on the train, letting someone in in the traffic, making a busy colleague a cup of tea.

See what you notice about the impact for them and how it makes you feel too.

Vanessa King is the Director of Psychology and Workplaces at Action for Happiness and the architect of its 10 Keys to Happier Living. See Vanessa's upcoming TEDx talk.