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 hap- piness. Some evidence suggests, in fact, that this is the most import- ant 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 engage- ment 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 inter- actions 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 con- cludes 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 hap- pier, too.
Lessons: Curate your friend group. Limit the time you spend with people who harbor consistently negative atti- tudes, 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. Create a moai. A moai is a circle of friends who commit to support each other for the long run. Our work with the Blue Zones Communities has borne out the importance of this American interpretation of the Okinawan custom, which calls for groups of five to seven people who share values and interests and meet up regularly simply for the sake of getting together. We try to mix longtime friends with new acquain- tances and ask them to agree to meet for at least 10 weeks, either walking together or sharing plant-based potluck din- ners. If members drop out after 10 weeks, the remaining members can invite in replacements, keeping the maximum size of the group at seven. Members of the moai agree to be each other’s personal board of advisers and commit to con- fidentiality. During each meeting—whether on a walk or at a meal—moai members each have a chance to ask the rest of the group to help them noodle through a problem, whether it’s at work, with kids, or with a spouse.
Lessons: First, survey your social landscape; maybe you already have the seeds of a moai, whether it’s a book club, a few fellow members of an exercise class, or a group who get together for lunch now and then. If so, start with them and introduce the more formal concept of a moai. Or, if you’re new to the area, try a networking site like meetup.com to find people near you who share your interests.
4. 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 who meet on an ongoing basis. Member- ship in a group like this compels you to show up regularly, either because of organizational rules, or out of peer pres- sure, or—ideally—simply out of the pleasure you gain from the associations.
5. Optimize your love life. Evidence and experience both suggest that the person most likely to shape your sense of well-being is the one you choose as your partner. Those who make the search an experience in itself, guided by principles that emphasize long-lasting well-being, ultimately make the best selections. Testing a partnership by living together may not be the best idea. A study that looked at a large number of successful and unsuccessful marriages found that living with a prospective spouse seems to make for a shorter, lower-quality marriage.
Lessons: Kiss lots of frogs. Date a wide variety of people before you choose a mate. Look for people who align with your values and interests. Look more than skin deep: While his big muscles and her pretty face may sing virtues on the surface, a sense of humor and compassion are more likely to keep you in the relationship for the long run. Avoid cohabitation.
6. Make marriage count. Research has shown that people who are married tend to be happier than people who are either single or divorced. Whom you marry has a lot to do with it, of course: The best marriages bring together two people who share many interests but also allow each other independence, who speak freely and listen well.
Lessons: Marry someone similar to you who shares your interests and attitudes. If you like folk dancing, running marathons, or volunteering at church, find a mate who also likes those things. Long-term living will be more harmoni- ous with someone on the same level of mood, extroversion, and conscientiousness. Also look for partners who make as much money as you do, or at least are inclined to share what they have. Try marriage training, too. Learning early in the relationship how to deal with conflict and listen effectively (“If I understand you correctly, you just said . . .”) is the groundwork of a successful marriage.
7. Be realistic about parenthood. Contrary to conventional wisdom, having children does not automatically bring greater happiness. Along with its many rewards, parenthood also brings additional stress from financial, relationship, and responsibility issues. The good news for parents is that hap- piness seems to rebound when children turn 18.
Lessons: Don’t assume you and your partner will become happier by having children. Talk through that decision as thoroughly as you would talk through any other, such as moving to a new city or taking a new job. Recognize, in the midst of it, how the stresses are affecting your happiness. Find ways to enrich your lives as parents in the same way you do with your adult friends: Engage in active pursuits together, listen well, and do your best to create an environ- ment of well-being for your children. While children can add stress to life, they can also contribute to all three strands of happiness in your life: pleasure, purpose, and pride.
Excerpted from the book The Blue Zones of Happiness © 2017 Dan Buettner. Reprinted by arrangement with National Geographic Partners, LLC.