“Happiness comes from within.” We hear this sentence all the time, and it’s predicated on the belief that if you dig deep enough into yourself, you will figure out who you are and everything else will fall into place. While I agree with the overall message in that you are responsible for your choices, it has become increasingly apparent to me that happiness comes from “with” as much as it comes from “within.”
The problem with the relentless quest for self-knowledge and inward focus is that it can become an excuse for self-interest and even narcissism. Don’t get me wrong; it is important to take care of ourselves; eating well, getting enough rest, being mindful, and exercising are valuable pursuits. Mastering a breathing technique to help us relax and taking a hot bath are good stress relievers—and can certainly help us stay strong in the face of daily stressors—but too much emphasis on the self can lead us astray.
New York Times columnist David Brooks laments how today we live in a culture of the “Big Me” that glorifies personal happiness at the expense of community and relationships. The irony is that studies show that focusing on the “Big Me” actually undermines happiness and well-being. Research shows that the happiest people have close ties to friends and family. Social interaction beyond one’s immediate circle is important, too. Studies show that people who connect with other human beings, even strangers on a train or in the checkout line, report brighter moods. Behavioral scientists call this “social snacking,” and it may just be the healthiest snack in the world.
We are social creatures, and our health—both physical and mental—depends on our social relationships. It’s well-known that having a shoulder to lean on can help us navigate our way through a difficult time. Less well-known is the research that shows how doing things for others helps buffer against stress. In a research article titled “Prosocial Behavior Helps Mitigate the Negative Effects of Stress in Everyday Life,” participants who engaged in “other-focused” behavior, such as holding a door, asking someone if they needed help, and lending a hand, reported better moods and lower daily stress levels than those who didn’t engage in helping behavior.
The key is to actively seek pathways that will help us transcend ourselves and escape the echo chamber of our minds. As tempting as it is to dive inward, make it a priority to connect, to interact, and to add value.