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How (and Why) to Boost Happiness by Enhancing Your Social Life

Curate your social network to optimize your well being

I’ve spent the past two years working on the “Blue Zones of Happiness” for National Geographic. I took a tack similar to previous Blue Zones books: I started by identifying the statistically happiest populations and then, through regression analysis and shoe-leather journalism, distilled the lessons they have to offer the rest of us. In profiling happiness paragons in Denmark, Singapore, Costa Rica, and Boulder, Colorado, I describe three measurable facets of happiness (Life Satisfaction, Positive Affect and Purpose) and uncover how these cities have achieved greater well being for their populations.

The research we did offers several lessons for individuals too. As research has shown, a few active relationships with good friends can have a bigger impact on your health and happiness than a lot of casual acquaintances. It’s important that you surround your­self with the right kinds of friends, though, because their thoughts and behaviors can be contagious. According to one statistical anal­ysis, you are 15 percent more likely to be happy if one of your close friends also is happy.

SOCIAL NETWORK BLUEPRINT FOR HAPPINESS

Your social network—made up of not only the friends you spend the most time with but also your partner and the family members living with you—plays an immense role in your experience of hap­piness. Some evidence suggests, in fact, that this is the most import­ant of all the rings of your Life Radius in determining how happy your life will be. You may not be able to choose your family, but you can influence those relationships by bringing attention and care to them. And you can choose your partner and your friends. Do so with care, curating your social network to optimize your happiness. Here are a few of the ways of doing so that have emerged from our visits to the world’s happiest places, from our experiences in Blue Zones Project Communities, and from the happiness experts we have consulted.

1. Prioritize friends and family. Evidence and experience prove that your social network—and your level of engage­ment with it—contribute significantly to your happiness and long-term well-being. Even introverts tend to be happier when they are around people than when they’re alone. Make the effort to keep in touch and spend time with the people who are closest to you and whose company you most enjoy.

Lessons: Arrange your schedule to include socializing for six to seven hours a day. In addition to your routines of work and home life, plan activities that reinforce inter­actions with friends and family, such as dancing, singing, and playing sports or games together. Make sure that these are active pursuits, not just passive pastimes like watching TV.

2. Hang out with happy people. Research on happiness con­cludes time and again that happiness is contagious. Our social networks have a powerful influence on us, and having positive, optimistic people around us is the top way to stay happy. It’s not just a feeling, either: When we are around

happy people, we start to subconsciously mimic their body movements and facial expressions, leading us to feel hap­pier, too.

Lessons: Curate your friend group. Limit the time you spend with people who harbor consistently negative atti­tudes, and put your happiest, funniest, and most trustworthy friends at the top of your contact list. You need at least three friends who are generally happy people. They should be friends with whom you can have meaningful conversations, people you can call for help on a bad day and people who can and do call on you for help, too. If you’re looking for more friends with such positive attributes, try broadening your network through local clubs, teams, or even social media sites that can help you meet people.

3. Join a club. Research suggests that people find more success and greater happiness when they let their special talents or interests—a sense of purpose—lead the way in curating a social network. According to one study, joining a group that meets even once a month produces the same happiness gain as doubling your income.

Lessons: Think about what your interests or talents are and find an organization that will nurture them. It could be a volunteer organization, a church mission group, or a committed self-improvement class that you attend. The idea here is to make a commitment to a sphere of people with common interests that meet on an ongoing basis. Member­ship in a group like this compels you to show up regularly, either because of organizational rules, or out of peer pres­sure, or—ideally—simply out of the pleasure you gain from the associations.

Adapted from The Blue Zones of Happiness: Lessons from the World’s Happiest People by Dan Buettner.

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