We are often told how important close relationships are for happiness. It’s a common myth and a cruel one. I feel disappointed when I think of how many people mistakenly believe they are destined to remain unhappy because they don’t have close relationships.
We evolved a ‘deep need to belong’ in the tribe because it kept us in the tribe, and that helped us live long enough to pass on our genes. That need to feel connected is still deep within us, and having close relationships with family and/or friends is a wonderful, rich way to satisfy that need. However, it’s not the only way. We can also satisfy that need when we feel connected with humanity. When we feel connected with the people around us – the shopkeeper, our neighbour, the staff, the people we meet – that’s enough to satisfy our ‘deep need to belong’. That’s enough for core happiness.
Think of it this way: we can eat in a five-star restaurant or we can eat sandwiches. One may be more enjoyable than the other, but both satisfy our hunger and both provide us with the nutrition we require. In the same way, we can satisfy our ‘deep need to belong’ the five-star way by having close relationships, or we can satisfy it by feeling connected with humanity. Both satisfy our deep need to belong and add to our core happiness.
‘We all know that connection provides not just joy but longevity. In some ways single people are a lot more connected with their community, because you are not in this little twosome, you actually have to make a conscious choice to get out there and be more connected.’
Judith Lucy, comedienne.
One thing is supremely important: we need the ability to communicate well with the people we know and meet.
There are countless people who have close friends and family. They talk and talk, but their poor communication skills mean they don’t fully connect with the people they are talking to. They see things only from their own perspective, so they can’t truly see the other person. Other people become mere shadows in their own life. As a consequence, they go through life feeling isolated. They may talk even more to fill that void, but that won’t alleviate their aloneness. These people in close relationships are not in close relationships, because the quality of those relationships is poor.
On the other hand, there are countless people who have no close friends or family, and they interact infrequently with people, but their ability to communicate with people on a healthy level allows them to feel connected with humanity, and it satisfies their deep need to belong. Why? Because when we have the ability to communicate well with people it means we have the ability to truly see that person; we have the ability to put ourselves in their shoes, understand their concerns, and see where we fit into what they’re saying. We see them. We hear them. We are actually there with them. That willingness to truly be with them connects us to them. And, because they represent everyone who is not us, they represent humanity.
If we have the ability to relate with another human being on a healthy level, then those weak connections we have with the shopkeeper, the neighbour, the person at the bus-stop, matter. They are not five-star connections but they do the job – they connect us. It might only be a nod when we walk past someone in the street, but if we mean it, then for that brief second we are fully acknowledging them. And that’s what makes the connection.
We might not even like the people around us; we might not like people in general, but that doesn’t preclude us from truly seeing them and feeling connected with them. And it’s that connection which matters. It’s that connection which satisfies our ‘deep need to belong’ and adds to our core happiness.
There are three reasons why it is often claimed we need close relationships to be happy:
(1) Studies show that the people who have family and friends tend to be happier than those who don’t. But those studies don’t take into account the fact that the better our communication skills, the more likely we are to form close friends and family.
(2) We tend to remember the loving moments we have with friends and family, so it’s easy to confuse those pleasures with core happiness. It’s easy to assume that those loving moments are the reason we are happy.
(3) Even if we have poor communication skills we can often still manage to form connections with close family members, and those close family relationships may be the only thing satisfying our deep need to belong. Then it becomes easy to give those relationships the credit for our happiness, especially if we feel isolated in the outside world. The trouble is, family becomes a refuge, not a base from which to launch ourselves into the wide world.
We need to form a connection with humanity, not just close family members, if we are to substantively satisfy our deep need to belong and add to our core happiness.
In short, we don’t need close relationships to be happy, though it’s easy to assume we do need them. In truth, it’s having the ability to form connections with people which is important. Then we can be just as happy as a person in a healthy, loving relationship. We may not be experiencing the oxytocin highs that people with loved ones may have, but those highs have nothing to do with core happiness; they have nothing to do with our day-to-day feeling of wellbeing.
If you do have healthy, close relationships, then enjoy them and look after them. Nurture them. Enjoy that five-star connection. It’s a great way to satisfy your deep need to belong. But don’t assume you need them to be happy, because you don’t. You just need the ability to have close relationships. It’s that ability that lets you connect with humanity and satisfy your deep need to belong.
Q. So, if it’s not about having close relationships, but about having quality communication skills, how do we get them?
Much of this book is about just that. Reading the pages on developing assertiveness skills is a good place to start.
Q. ‘Some people really need to be surrounded by friends. My sister finds toilet cubicles lonely.’
Your sister might like to find another way to get a sense of belonging, to reduce that dependency. Otherwise her neediness might result in her being exploited and easily influenced.
Having quality connections with the people we meet in life allows us to be more discerning about the relationships we do choose to have, and we can be less dependent on them.
Q. ‘Kathleen Puckett wrote in the magazine, ‘New Scientist’, 4th September, 2011:
“. . . During my 23-year stint as an FBI special agent, my colleagues and I looked into what Kaczynski, McVeigh and Rudolph (three mass murderers) had in common. The results were startling. All three were highly intelligent and well educated, with no previous history of criminal violence. But they all shared a profound inability to forge meaningful relationships. . . . (They were) all repeatedly unable to connect socially to the groups whose ideology they shared.”
‘Doesn’t this indicate that we need meaningful relationships?’
No, but it might indicate we need the ability to forge meaningful relationships. If those murderers were unable to forge meaningful relationships there is a good chance they were also unable to connect well with anyone. It sounds like they were unequivocally disconnected from the human race.
Here are some other happiness myths:
– The power of positive thinking. We are often told that we need to look on the bright side if we want to be happy. We need to see the glass half full. But is that helpful advice?
– Myth: we need money to be happy. Surely we need money to be happy, don’t we? Without it we would be in dire straits. So, why is it a myth?
– Myth: to be happy we need to be kind. Countless times we are told that becoming a kind person will make us happier. Why isn’t that true?
– Myth: We are happier with only a few possessions. Will having fewer possessions make us feel happier? How does that work?
– Myth: We need to suffer before we can be happy. Helen Keller once said: ‘The hilltops would not be half so wonderful if there were no dark valleys to traverse.’ Is she right?
– Myth: We need to reach our full potential. The life coaches offer to help us become better people, yet in another breath tell us to accept ourselves for who we are. What’s going on?
– Myth: We need to love ourselves to be happy. We keep hearing that, but is it true? No, it’s not.
– Myth: We need to be loved to be happy This isn’t true either! At least, not after our teens.
– Myth: We need good health to be happy. That seems obvious, doesn’t it? After all, we won’t be happy suffering the black plague. But does good health bring core happiness?
– Myth: We can choose to be happy. This is one of the most pernicious myths going around. Of course we can’t choose to be happy!
– Myth: We need to fake it until we make it. Supposedly, if we act happy, we will become happy. But it’s just not true.
– Myth: Happiness comes from having low expectations. Don’t expect much and you won’t be disappointed, goes the saying. But does that equal happiness? Of course not.
– Myth: We need to foster compassion to be happy. The Buddhists are particularly keen on the idea of fostering compassion. So, should we foster it?
– Myth: We can earn our self-worth. How many of us live our lives trying to earn our self-worth? Might you be trying to earn your self worth?
– Myth: We should aim to succeed. Life-coaches want to tell us how to succeed, but we shouldn’t even try.
The wealth of research seems to prove you wrong on this fact and your other myths. Like…this is just your say so, even that longitudinal study Harvard did proves you wrong. Those little bits with the people in town aren’t close relationships. It’s not a matter of communication even though that’s important, but how close you are and the quality of relationships. I highly doubt you’ll be able to confide in that cashier or be able to lean on them in hard times.
Like…you’re kidding yourself here. This isn’t a myth is pretty much a fact.
Thank you for taking the time to respond to this myth too, Xain. Thankfully you have not prompted me to trash this myth as well.
My work is more of an opinion, a fresh way of looking at a topic. My concern with studies is that they can be so flawed. The results obtained can be affected by the questions asked, how those questions are phrased, what time of the day the questions are asked, the attractiveness and personability of the person presenting the questionnaire, the sample of the population taken, and in particular, what the experimenter is hoping to prove. For those reasons I distrust studies. Even Harvard ones. Instead, I took my approach, and yes, it’s just my say so. It’s my opinion. I let the reader decide if my words have merit. As you have done.
The thing is, from my life experience I can see that there are plenty of people who have someone to confide in, but who are still, nevertheless, unhappy. And there are people like myself who have no one to confide in, but are happy. If there is a real correlation between happiness and having close relationships, as you suggest, it might be because the people who have the skills to have a close relationship might well also have the skills to feel connected in general.
And yes, you’re right: those ‘little bits with the people in town are not close relationships’. I certainly could not confide in any of them. But that’s my point. I’m saying that with those people it’s possible to feel connected, even though none of those individual connections are in any way strong or close. It makes me think of a spider’s web: one strand is easily broken by an insect, but when there are hundreds of strands, they do the job. I suspect being strongly connected with one, two or even five people will not help a person be happy if that person is unable to feel connected with an entire community. Feeling a part of something – a football club, an Amish community, a mindset . . . is important. If you can also have a confidant, a close relationship, even better!
I hope you have both.
But you’re just straight up wrong here. There are literally hundreds of studies proving that close relationships are necessary for well being and health. Your points to distrust studies just shows ignorance of how studies are done. There are several controls in place to help prevent and minimize the bias it might have.
If anything there is no real reason to trust you or your personal accounts or people you know because we don’t know what could be at play with them. So it’s just funny your counter to studies are “I know a guy” when the study is literally designed to help sort out what the source is for something.
But still one can’t deny that the data all points the same direction.
“The results obtained can be affected by the questions asked, how those questions are phrased, what time of the day the questions are asked, the attractiveness and personability of the person presenting the questionnaire, the sample of the population taken, and in particular, what the experimenter is hoping to prove.”
These aren’t valid concerns and honestly the same could be applied to you except in science there is peer review, reproducibility, and other controls to stop such things. So again your points are a nothing Burger. This isn’t affected by the questions asked, who asked them, the attractiveness of the person has nothing to do with it or what they’re hoping to prove. If all the data and research points to the same conclusion at some point you have to ask if you’re just denying reality.
It doesn’t matter what you say or think the fact is that humans do need close relationships for their mental health and wellbeing. Your “say so” doesn’t mean anything.
I am surprised you have such a strong faith in such studies, and so readily discount the confounding variables I listed. Your faith in such studies is obviously stronger than mine, so let’s agree to disagree.
I do, however, appreciate your objections. They get me questioning my material for its veracity. You managed to get me to trash one article. Good work!
The confounding variable you listed showed me show you don’t understand studies. They control for those variables and this subject has been tested so much with the same results that your concerns sound more like someone just looking for an excuse to deny reality.
All you have is personal testimony and knowing people, and that’s not data. We don’t know what exactly could be the reason behind your claims without testing it.
That said it still doesn’t overwrite the literal mountains of data on humans and social connections being pretty much tied to each other.
Calling my stance faith is just ignorance at this point. I mean even the Stoics understood the need for friendship as important to human well being.
Even if studies could take into account the confounding variables, and even if they unanimously did show a strong correlation between happiness and the high number of close relationships the happy people have, that still doesn’t mean close relationships create happiness. Remember the difference between correlation and causation? As I pointed out, the people who have the ability to have strong connections probably also have the ability to feel connected with humanity. Therefore, it would be no surprise to find that there is a high correlation between happiness and close relationships. But to assume close relationships cause happiness is a mistake. If close relationships really did create happiness then everyone who had a close relationship would be happy, and everyone who did not have a close relationship would be unhappy (barring other incidents in life, like cancer, etc.). I am claiming that it’s more nuanced than that. Indeed, I would claim that if the social scientists’ studies could measure a person’s ability to feel connected with the community in general, they would find an even stronger correlation with happiness. But they don’t measure that because it’s too hard to measure. It’s much easier to measure ‘close relationships’, so that’s what they measure. And that’s why their conclusions are skewed.
I refer to the ‘sandwich’ example I gave in the article: having friends and close family is a five-star way to feel connected, but simply feeling connected in general will do the job. But it is that five-star way which is easily measurable, so it is easy for the social scientists to conclude that close relationships are what makes us happy.
BTW, I didn’t call your stance faith; I said you had faith in the scientific studies. Big difference. You don’t seem to realise just how faulty scientific studies can be. They can be faulty in myriad ways. (Not as bad as pseudoscience, admittedly.) The trap of correlation/causation is a common one, which might explain the ‘mountain of data’ you refer to. Questionnaires are particularly questionable. No pun intended.
Lastly, virtually nowhere do I give references. The disclaimer on the home page says it all: my work is a personal philosophy, a site with a few ideas. (I tend to question mainstream ideas.) My ideas might have merit, they might not. If you want to rely on scientific studies and their data, you are reading the wrong blog.
That said, I have very much appreciated your comments. They help me clarify, or even discard, my views.
Great article – really helped
Thank you for letting me know!
Glad that I’m not the only one who doesn’t need any relationships.
Thank you so much! I suffered so much in my twenties and thirties due to desperately wanting close relationships because I felt that I needed to have them to feel normal. Since hitting my forties I’ve come to realize that I don’t need close relationships to feel whole. If I connect with someone on a deeper level, it’s a bonus.
Thank you so much for responding. I love to hear comments like these. They hearten me.
Yes, we don’t need close relationships, but I’m hoping you get that bonus!
Many thanks for this. It feels right to me. What if the baby doesn’t get the loving care bit of the ‘cooking’ process. Does that have any bearing on your thesis? I have very few, very loose family ties and a few friends, but could live quite happily without either. This preference feels honest and true, not a kind of giving up on people. But I have wondered whether there’s an unconscious aversion to close relationships resulting from a troubled and troubling childhood, or just an innate preference for solitude. As you describe, I get great pleasure from those chance encounters with people, however brief, and they really do seem to be satisfying and sufficient. But, I don’t want to get to the end of my life and think ‘damn, I missed something because I wasn’t prepared to be real with myself.’
Hi Kate. Thank you for your thoughtful and articulate response!
If the baby doesn’t get the loving care bit, does that have a bearing on my thesis? Yes and no. My ideas are a general philosophy that don’t, and can’t, take exceptions like that into account. It’s like a general study of flight that doesn’t take into account a broken wing. So no, my ideas don’t take into account times in which someone isn’t ‘cooked’ properly, but they’re not meant to. If someone isn’t ‘cooked’ properly the possibilities are endless, and how that person turns out will depend on a host of other exacerbating and compensating factors which I can’t examine.
Your second question is even more interesting. As you may guess, like the uncle, (and like you) I have no close friends or family, but I’m living quite happily without either. I have also wondered if I have an unconscious aversion to close relationships. Could it be that time when Mum abandoned us for six weeks when I was two? Or her smothering ways from then on? Or is it in my genes to be a loner? Is it in my genes to be good-natured and easily feel connected with people? Or did I, inadvertently and with good fortune, develop the capacity to feel connected with people? It’s so hard to know. I ask such questions of myself regularly, to be ‘real with myself’ and to be honest with my reader. All I know is that to me, what I have written seems to make sense and seems to be true. (Though it would, wouldn’t it?) Even if my ability to be alone stems from my genes or my past, that doesn’t change the fact that it’s probably a good idea to not place too much importance on the necessity of a close relationship for happiness. I want to reassure people that if in their adulthood they don’t have close relationships – and there are many such people – they can still be happy. In the coming months the uncle and nephew will, in Section 2, be discussing ways in which we can increase the connection we have with people. If what they say is correct, that can’t be a bad thing anyway. No matter how good or bad our past, or how influential our genes, helpful hints can’t go astray.
Finallly, regarding your concern about the end of your life and possible regrets, I have them already! I bet you do too. I think nearly all of us do. I often wonder what I would be like if my life had taken a different direction. Would I be happier after all? Would that mean my book is wrong? Or, would I be less happy? Or would I be the same? Who knows. When I see happily married couples I doubt myself and what I what I have written. But that’s to be expected, because my material goes against the grain of what on the surface seems right. There is no certainty for me. And for you, by the sounds of it. Good luck with that!
In short, I already know the words to be etched onto my metaphorical tombstone: Mark Avery. Perpetually bewildered.
Thank you for contacting me, Kate.
Hello I am a 46 year old single parent and never been married. How do I keep from feeling lonely like I’ve missed out on happiness.
When I wrote the two books I was trying to solve the puzzle of what makes a person happy, resilient and connected. And that included how to make a person less lonely. I understand that most people won’t apply the tips that I present. That’s the same for other self-help books and other guide books too. There are countless self-help books around, yet most of the people who read them are still troubled. Or lonely. Either the self-help books give poor advice, (that’s common) or they give good advice but it’s asking too much to expect the reader to apply the tips. (That’s common too.) I’m one of those readers. I might read a book that sounds perfectly sensible, but not get around to actually applying the ideas in it. I have owned a book on how to project my voice for six years, but I haven’t yet practised the suggested exercises!
But to answer your question: how you can stop feeling lonely and be happy? I’d like you to go to the ‘Happiness Myths’ section and read: ‘Myth: We need to be loved’ and ‘Myth: We need to love’. Hopefully they will persuade you that you don’t need a relationship to be happy.
I would also suggest that you read Parts 8 & 9 in my other free online book, ‘The Umpteen Ways to Satisfy Our Deep Need to Belong’.
I don’t believe anyone needs a relationship to be happy, though when a single person is lonely and unhappy, it’s hard to accept that. It’s easy for a lonely person to see happy people in healthy loving relationships and assume that their relationship is why they’re happy. But they’re not happy because they’re in a relationship; they’re happy because they’re satisfying their innate need to feel connected, (and in a five-star way). People can feel connected in other ways. If we can feel connected, even if it’s only the one-star way, that’s good enough to satisfy our innate need for connection. And to be happy. That’s what my other free online book, ‘The Umpteen Ways to Satisfy Our Deep Need to Belong’ is about.
I am 60 and have never married. Countless times I have thought how lovely it would be for me to have a healthy loving relationship with a woman. However, I have not felt lonely. And, I’m happy. I think it’s because I apply the tips I describe in the books (though I can’t be sure) and I understand why a person who is alone doesn’t have to be unhappy. They just need to feel connected. I’m fortunate, because my innate need for connection is met.
I hope my suggested readings persuade you that you don’t need to have a relationship to be happy. A healthy loving relationship is a wonderful bonus in life, but it’s not necessary for happiness. I know that’s hard to believe, but I’ve managed it. As have countless others.
And, if you do manage to avoid the general self-help inertia most of us experience and actually apply the tips in each book, you might well find that in a year’s time you will notice that there have been changes within you, and that you’re happy. So that when you do find a relationship, it’s not necessary, it’s just a lovely bonus.
Thank you for the advice. Take care.