Effective and Ineffective Pursuits of Happiness: Investing in Relationships with Others Is an Anti-Depressant

There’s an interesting cross-cultural study regarding the pursuit of happiness which, also, gives us some indirect evidence about loneliness, connecting with others, and depression. This in turn suggests a natural anti-depressant strategy, as I’ll talk about shortly. This post is a follow-up to my last post about loneliness, depression, and non-pharmaceutical anti-depressants, so check out that post too.

The Study’s Results and Interpretation

This study, which Johann Hari discusses in Lost Connections, found that when people in the United States intentionally sought to become happier, they tended to fail. It also found that when people in East Asia intentionally sought to become happier, they tended to succeed. Interesting, right?

The researchers thought these sharply contrasting outcomes were likely a result of differing understandings of how happiness and sadness work. In a culture like that of the United States, happiness, sadness, and so forth are implicitly understood to be properties of individuals. I could be somewhere with a group of friends, and all of them could be sad, yet I might still be happy. At least, that implicit understanding is widespread in the United States. But it seems in East Asia, feelings are understood to be properties of individuals in relation with each other, or to put it another way, feelings are felt with others. In an East Asian context, it seems, it wouldn’t make sense to think of someone feeling happy amid friends who are sad.

Those differences seem to have big consequences for how people in the United States, and people in East Asia, go about intentionally seeking happiness. In other words, the different understandings of how happiness works dictate very different courses of action. What people actually do when they seek happiness, in the U.S. and in East Asia, differs sharply in one key way.

In the United States, when a person intentionally seeks to become happier, they typically go about this by doing things for themself alone, as an individual apart from others. Hari shares that he himself would typically purchase things for himself, or seek achievement for himself or pleasant experiences for himself. (Hari is actually British, but presumably this pattern holds across highly individualistic societies, and certainly across Anglo or Anglo-Scotch societies.) And this is the type of behavior that was found not to result in greater happiness.

In contrast, in East Asia, when a person intentionally sets out to increase their happiness, typically they do things for other people, particularly for others with whom one is somehow linked. As Hari puts it, in East Asia, “that’s what you think happiness means” — a feeling or state shared with those you share life with — “so it seems obvious” to try to make the people around you happier. Again, this was the pattern of happiness-seeking behavior that actually did result in greater happiness.

Evidence for Causal Relationships

Besides being interesting and potentially useful in its own right, these results and interpretation offer further indirect evidence (1) that loneliness is a cause of depression, and (2) that not being lonely, being instead connected with others through mutual support and meaning, should have anti-depressant effects. Perhaps it is most clearly evidence for that second point: meaningful and mutually supportive connection with others is a genuine, non-pharmaceutical anti-depressant. After all, the East Asian “collectivistic” happiness-seeking behaviors could be thought of as intentionally and actively investing in the strength and quality of your relationships with others.

The Anti-Depressant

This also suggests a naturally anti-depressant strategy to follow, or practice to engage in, especially for those of us whose consciousness is individualistically formed, such as that of the typical American or Briton. Rather than trying to “help the self” by itself, as a self existing in isolation, instead help the self indirectly by investing in its relationships with others. Rather than do something directly for the self, instead do something for yourself by doing something for someone else. Rather than talking about yourself to someone else, instead talk about them, the other person. I’m sure this strategy can be taken too far, and I would suggest guarding against that. However, there appear to be good reasons to experiment with it. One, of course, is the study I described above. Another is Hari’s account of his own experience with this method: “When I applied this technique, I realized that it often — though not always — stopped the slide downward. It worked much more effectively than trying to build myself up alone.”

Do you ever use this method?

Again, this behavior is an example of a non-pharmaceutical anti-depressant!

This post is “part two” of a series:

My post about Hari’s Lost Connections book.

(Quotations and references are to Hari’s Lost Connections (external link to the book’s own website), and specifically its Chapter 16: “Reconnection One: To Other People”)

SeekerFive creates expressive photographic art at matthewvphoto.redbubble.com.

He also creates visual art and designs under his Leaf Town brand at society6.com/leaftown.

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9 thoughts on “Effective and Ineffective Pursuits of Happiness: Investing in Relationships with Others Is an Anti-Depressant

  1. Pain and tolerance levels are more for East Asians. Hence they shy away from anti depressents. Strong family culture and support adds to that too. Religion and culture add to the equation for Indians like me. As a Mom with an young adult with autism my religion and culture has helped me handle my situations.

  2. Interconnectedness is a fine line away from codependency. I like how you say to experiment with it, for we cannot give so much away that we lose ourselves. This requires communicating our needs as well to others, for as much as it helps is to help someone else, they too get helped when they help us!

  3. Fantastic insights, here! I’ve never felt more alone than in a sea of people…but a small island of connectivity can create an oasis. 💞💞💞

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