Better Together: Why Relationships Make Us Happy
Author and happiness expert Oliver Burkeman dissects joy in love and life.
It’s one of the most enduring puzzles in the “science of happiness”: The countries that score highest in international surveys of well-being aren’t the most prosperous, the most stable or those with the best weather. (The happiest places on the planet, according to recent studies, include Vietnam, Colombia and Denmark.) And they’re certainly not the nations with the largest numbers of grinning self-help gurus, preaching the power of positive thinking.
You probably think you know why: because it’s not money, climate or positive thinking that leads to happiness, but relationships—romantic bonds, friendships and vibrant communities. But why should togetherness be so crucial to happiness? It’s a question that psychologists have been busy pondering, and though they’d probably have been happier on vacation with their spouses or drinking cocktails with friends, they’ve arrived at some intriguing answers.
The bluntest explanation comes from evolutionary theory: We’re wired to feel happier in the company of others because cooperation and togetherness helped prehistoric humans survive and reproduce. (Not only prehistoric humans, either; just try reproducing without someone else being involved at some point in the process.) That’s surely true, but psychology offers an additional, surprising possibility: That what’s truly fulfilling about romance, friendships, parenting and other forms of togetherness is how unpredictable they are.
We tend to imagine that what we really want in life is certainty and security, whether financial, physical or political. Traditional self-help, with its focus on positive thinking, promises to lead us to a plateau where we’ll permanently be happy; maybe it’s no coincidence that fairy tales end with the words “happily ever after.” Yet research shows that such lifestyles quickly lose their shine. Thanks to what’s known as the “hedonic treadmill,” we adapt to new benefits—better homes, bigger incomes—and they stop making us happy. What we really crave is novelty, surprise, a sense of unknown possibilities. And this is where togetherness comes in—because there’s no better source of unpredictability in life than other people.
“To love at all is to be vulnerable,” wrote C. S. Lewis: Love and heartbreak are two sides of one coin, and if you eliminate the possibility of heartbreak, you eliminate the possibility of love. (That’s a more general problem with positive thinking: Stamp out negative emotions, and you stamp out the good ones.) Among the best ways for long-term couples to keep the flame alive, studies suggest, is pursuing unfamiliar activities together, instead of the old routines. This may also help explain the fulfilments of parenthood. Children are ceaselessly changing sources of unpredictability. Self-help books promise, in effect, to help us achieve closure; what we really need, the psychologist Paul Pearsall argued, is “openture,” a turning towards the unpredictable and unknowable, which includes, above all, what’s going on in other people’s minds.
Little wonder, then, that travel, whether alone or in the company of others, is so famously another source of happiness. Wander through an unfamiliar city—without using your smartphone to keep you on a pre-planned route—and an encounter with the unknown is guaranteed. Will you find happiness on this particular trip, or in that particular relationship? You can’t be certain. But you wouldn’t want to be. Knowing in detail how the rest of your life would unfold, the philosopher Alan Watts argued, would be a kind of death. Uncertainty is another word for life.
Oliver Burkeman is the author of The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, published by Faber & Faber Inc.