Friday happened to be the International Day of Happiness, but people around the world feel anything but happy right now. Many of us are stressed and worried, wondering what this global pandemic means for our friends, families, and communities.
The pursuit of happiness is likely the furthest thing from people’s minds. Yet, as Buddhist monk and psychologist Jack Kornfield once told me in an interview, cultivating a joyful spirit can actually help not only us, but the people around us—especially when things are hard. “Our gift to the world comes as much through our being and presence, our smile and touch, our sense of possibility and the mystery of human life, as it does in the specifics of what we do,” he says.
It’s a lovely sentiment, and it also seems to be supported by science. Study after study shows that well-being—either being in a positive mood or recognizing that you have a good life—benefits those in our social sphere, whether we’re talking about our families, workplaces, schools, or society at large. When we’re happy, we’re better relationship partners, more kind and helpful in our communities, and more productive in our workplaces—all of which may be useful during this time of crisis.
In other words, our emotional state affects others, too. Here are some of the ways that pursuing our well-being might make a positive difference in other people’s lives.
Our well-being is contagious in social circles
Researchers Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler have found that, in social networks, happiness can be contagious up to three degrees of separation from its initial source (you!). That means that when you are happy, the people you are connected to tend to be happier, as are the friends of those friends and the friends of your friends’ friends—like, for example, your sister’s boss’s running buddy.
Happiness contagion can also happen in schools. One study found that a student’s individual well-being and happiness at the end of the school year partly depended on how happy and satisfied with life their classmates were earlier in the year. And it can happen at home in families and in workplaces, too.
Why would that be? It turns out that our brains are pretty attuned to the emotions of those around us. Through a complex neural system sometimes referred to as “mirror neurons,” we experience the feelings of others inside ourselves. It’s why when we smile, it can make others smile, and when we laugh, it tickles other people’s funny bones. As long as we are in some kind of contact with people—physically or even online—our good feelings tend to spread to them.
Our well-being helps us bond with others
Even when we’re isolated, good relationships are just as important as ever—offering the love, care, and connection we need for these difficult times. And taking care of our well-being can help us maintain those relationships in a myriad of ways (and help keep anger and tension at bay).
In one experiment, researchers found that inducing happiness in individual romantic partners by showing them happy imagery made them feel better about their relationship. In another experiment, people expressing greater positive feelings tended to have more satisfying, less contentious marital discussions around conflicts, which could help couples stay together longer.
In a large review of these kinds of studies, authors Shannon Moore, Ed Diener, and Kenneth Tan suggested several possible ways that good feelings could contribute to relationship building, in both the short term and the long term. Among them are:
- Happy people are more likely to engage with others and be more social.
- When meeting new people, happier people tend to have more substantial interactions and feel a greater sense of commonality than less happy people.
- Happy people are less likely to have conflicts with others and are better at negotiating differences.
- Happy people may be more kind and helpful toward others.
- Other people find it rewarding to be with happy people.
This suggests that there is some kind of reciprocal relationship between well-being and social bonds, which strengthens both. That’s not only good for you, but it’s also good for each person you’re connected to.
Our well-being can improve the health of those around us
It’s true that happiness seems to have positive effects on your health and longevity. Studies have found that happier people tend to have stronger immunity, maintain their weight better, and sleep better—which all, in turn, can lead to better health.
But could our well-being affect the health of those around us, too? At least some research suggests it does.
Studies have found that when we’re happier, our spouses have better health and greater longevity, though the exact reasons for that are unclear. It could be that happier spouses have more energy for helping and supporting sick partners, as researcher Olga Stavrova speculates. But it could also be that a cheerful spouse makes their partner feel happier or less stressed, and that’s what indirectly makes them healthier.
Our well-being helps us engage in social problems and help the world
We all need to pitch in right now and do the right thing to protect society at large. Fortunately, taking care of our own well-being may give us the emotional resources to help those around us deal with the coronavirus.
As one study found, happier people are more likely to care about the problems of the world and to take action to alleviate suffering—perhaps because they have more personal agency and energy to do so. Another study in Germany found that happier people tended to be more involved citizens—meaning, they voted, volunteered, and participated in community activities more than less happy people—possibly because they were optimistic and trusted others more. Yet another study in Latin America found that happier people tended to vote more, and that happiness was likely the cause—not the effect—of voting.
Of course, saying that your well-being helps others isn’t meant to pressure you to be happy all the time, which is pretty much impossible even in more normal times. It’s good to remember that all emotions can be useful under certain circumstances, including negative ones, such as when fear keeps us from taking unnecessary risks or sadness helps signal to others that we need comfort. Nor does it mean that we should simply put on a happy face when we don’t feel happy. Accepting our negative emotions is actually useful for our well-being, while repressing them generally isn’t.
But these findings do suggest that taking care of our well-being need not be entirely a selfish pursuit, even now. We can all try to do so as individuals—by practicing keys to more sustained well-being, like gratitude, mindfulness, awe, and compassion—and try to build societies that promote wellness. And you can pretty much bet that by nurturing our well-being, we will be helping those around us to cope better with the coronavirus, contributing to a better world for all.