Valentine’s Day is almost here again, a day that is pretty tough for a lot of single people. So many of us have uncritically bought into the notion, almost universally assumed in popular movies, music, and books, that romantic love is the One True Road to happiness. Life doesn’t really begin until you meet your “soul mate,” and if you haven’t met her or him yet, well, what’s wrong with you?
These attitudes are so destructive. They foster the attitude that love is about being loved rather than loving. They encourage us to put our lives on hold until love arrives, instead of taking action, here and now, to create our own happiness. Waiting for your life to begin until the boyfriend or girlfriend shows up is a recipe for passivity, resignation, and despair.
The notion that romantic love is essential for happiness is not true. There is a lot of good research on what the actual components of human happiness are, and if you are bummed out on Valentine’s Day, it might be useful to have a look at it. The truth can be very encouraging.
What does that research show? First, there is a virtually unanimous consensus that, as social animals, the most important factor in human happiness is closeness with others, but no studies conclude that only romantic relationships can meet that need. It is within everyone’s power to work to deepen our connections with the family members or friends whom we love, and to work at building a close circle of intimate friends. Don’t make the mistake of undervaluing your platonic relationships!
The second most important factor in creating happiness is meaningful activity. Many people imagine they would be happier if they didn’t have to work, but, in fact, having too much time on our hands is a great source of unhappiness. We are happiest when we’re in the “flow”, that is, when we’re engaged in activities that make us forget ourselves and lose track of time. Not everyone can experience flow in their jobs, but we can all find it somewhere – through such activities as making music, gardening, playing sports, learning, or, for some, even pouring over a spreadsheet. We experience a sense of fulfilment when using and developing our skills, talents and abilities, and we all need to find places in our lives to do this.
Generosity is highly correlated with happiness. Many people report that what lifted them from depression was helping others. Give back to the community through such things as tutoring children, volunteering at a homeless shelter, or advocating politically for those who don’t have a voice (and that doesn’t mean just ranting on Facebook!) Make yourself available to the people in your life who are sick or in need. We are all happier when we act from empathy and compassion toward those around us.
Some mental habits are also important. There’s a strong correlation between happiness and a strong capacity for forgiveness. Those who can’t forgive become angry and depressed over time, and suffer poorer health due to the physical reactions to these negative emotions. Nothing will poison your happiness more effectively than holding grudges. In addition, cultivating an attitude of gratitude is also important in happiness. Deliberately focusing on appreciation for the many good things in our lives fosters contentment, while brooding over what’s lacking fosters bitterness.
Taking care of your health is also important, but that doesn’t mean becoming a gym rat. The research shows that regular aerobic exercise decreases anxiety and depression, and is correlated with a sense of well-being. Another finding is that happy people get adequate rest. Sleep deprivation is widespread in our culture, and is associated with fatigue, diminished alertness, and gloomy moods. Also important to happiness are days of rest and regular time away from work and responsibility.
The more we can live with these goals in mind, the more likely we’ll feel happy and connected, whether we’re singled or partnered. Of course they won’t guarantee that we’ll find a partner, but those who practice generosity, forgiveness, and gratitude, and who learn to think of love in terms of giving it more than receiving it, have always lived with the greatest abundance of all forms of love in their lives.