Social connections – a circle of friends, family, other people we come to know through shared work or interests – time and again come up in studies of what makes happy.
Being part of an organized religion? It may also help with attitudes towards life, but a major effect are the experiences shared with other people that it provides.
Working from home? Not as much fun as many people think when they imagine getting up late and starting to work in their pajamas, because the water cooler-talks with colleagues are missing.
Smoking, drinking, overeating, stereotyping others, railing against “them there”? A large part of the pleasurable feelings these rather less good behaviors provide comes from them being done in groups, and forging bonds between their members.
Bringing problematic sides in right at the beginning is definitely not what How To’s on happiness would ordinarily do, but necessary for the consideration of really better lives. After all, they – as always- require a certain balance that is neither reached through simple prescriptions for action, nor through philosophical pontificating.
The ecological perspective, however conceived, makes it abundantly clear that we are always connected.
We could survive truly on our own for some time, perhaps, and not have any contact with other human beings. However, we probably would not consider it a very good life, materially or psychologically, and it certainly is not how families, communities, and entire societies – or even individual lives – ordinarily function and flourish.
Without others, we simply could not exist. We depend on their material support, whether as family members or anonymous producers of resources and goods we consume, and we are psychologically attuned to interacting with others. It is a need and a desire to see and be seen, gain the support of like-minded people, have friends, find a partner and found a family.
At the same time, we do need some separation. After all, we are all individuals, even if within environments and social groupings.
Many of the (other) things that make happy show the tension: many of them are things that the individual needs to do him-/herself, but many can only be done with others – learning may be better done with teachers, but also requires the student to sit down and study; having enough is easier when an entire family is of one mind about it; a romantic walk through the park is even better than a walk by oneself, family obligations and social pressure can make risking something in life more difficult, but also less risk and more value; work and earnings need others and are with and for them…
Like-minded circles of friends, and family, can be great support and motivation for changing towards better lives – which sane person wouldn’t want a decent life for their children? Family and social circles can also make it more difficult to do things better, however. Social pressure is typically pressure to conform and just accept what is normal, and pushes a person to stay within well-defined boundaries.
Add to this how much we are creatures of habit, who tend to react and do things the way we did before, anyways, and it is abundantly clear why change is difficult, even when it would be for the better. You may need to take the plunge into a new social situation if you want to learn how to do things differently, rally support from your partner, run the risk of losing friends. All uncomfortable.
It’s never been easier, for both good and bad, change and resistance, to find likeminded people than it is now, though.
Just go online, and you will find lots of networks united by common interests. They are not the same as people met in person – and being distracted by social media while in a social situation, sitting across from another real person while texting another, is a great problem nowadays – but still provide an additional, and great, relationship of the modern age.
Of course, individual personality also plays a role.
Telling a total introvert that more social contacts will make him/her happier may be a good reminder for them to take care of their partner and friends, but be rather useless in making this person happier to go out among crowds or small-talking at parties. More social interaction may not make someone happier who prefers to be in the company of their own thoughts.
An extrovert, on the other hand, probably does not need to be told to look for social interaction – but he/she may actually be in need of learning that there is more to a good life than friends and fun.
You need to learn what it is that makes you personally feel your life is well-lived.
Communities, based upon their common place in the world, their joined lives, certainly are what has been making for survival and good lives of humans through millennia.
They may have been at their most difficult, but also at their best, when they had ways of being both tightly-knit, united by commonalities, and at the same time, flexible and open enough to allow for individuals and various cultural sub-groupings to be different without standing apart.
They are also an excellent example of phenomena that are larger than we ourselves are as individuals, yet obviously arise from what we all do as individuals – and as they say, you can’t pick your family, but you can choose your friends… let alone whether you yourself act as a member of a community or not.