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THE INC. LIFE

The 5 Most Important Things Science Learned About Happiness Last Year

Science has recently made big strides in understanding how to be happier and more connected.

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BY Jessica Stillman - 02 Jan 2019

important things about happiness

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Let's face it, 2018 wasn't exactly a banner year in good news. The last twelve months were often filled with bitter division, endless scandals, and a world sometimes literally in flames. But while the headlines were often grim, behind the scenes science was quietly chipping away at the question of how we can all live lives full of happiness and meaning amid the world's many challenges.

The result was a bumper crop of useful and interesting positive psychology findings, ten of which were recently rounded up by UC Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center. Some focused on niche interests like teen psychology or education theory, but many offered insights all of us can use to be happier and more connected lives in 2019.

1. Making true friends takes a whole lot of time.

According to former surgeon general Vivek Murthy, America is in the midst of a loneliness epidemic, with nearly half of the country reporting they feel lonely. So why don't all those socially isolated folks just go out and make themselves some friends? Political and social factors definitely play a role, but one new study offered a simpler, more direct answer: making a good friend takes a whole lot of time.

The study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships showed that it takes students 120 hours to move from being casual acquaintances to true friends. For adults the average time was a whopping 164 hours. And as anyone can tell you, in today's hectic world, we all feel like we have no time (though science suggests that might be more perception than reality).

So does that mean we're all doomed to being lonely? Nope, says Greater Good. Instead the correct take away from the study is "a dash of perspective." Friends don't just happen. Making them requires a real investment, so don't be discouraged if the process isn't fast or easy. And definitely don't expect social connections to simply fall in your lap.

"Everyone wants to have friends, but you can't have friends without making them," the lead researcher sensibly points out.

2. You have less EQ than you think you do.

Much like the study above, this finding from a pair of recent studies initially sounds like bad news. But knowing how much most of us stink at empathy is actually good news if you look at in the right perspective.

The studies asked subjects to interpret other people's emotions from their expressions and found "the most confident people were often the least accurate at empathizing. The problem is hubris--thinking we understand people better than we do and jumping to unwarranted conclusions," Greater Good comments.

If you take heed of this science and assume you're lousy at guessing others' emotions, you can both work on improving your EQ in the long-term and simply ask people more directly how they feel in the short-term. That makes for better relationships, and better relationships are central to happiness.

3. You can sleep your way to less loneliness.

Apparently, it was a bumper year for fascinating findings on loneliness. For another paper published in Nature Communications researchers had both well rested and sleepy study subjects watch a stranger approaching while undergoing a brain scan. Tired participants were more repulsed by new people and wanted them to stay further away. They also reported feeling more lonely.

In short, being sleepy makes us want to avoid people, and in a follow-up experiment the scientists also showed others also avoid sleepy people. So while making a true friend will take you more than 100 hours, you can take one simple step towards being less lonely in about eight hours. Just get a good night's sleep.

It won't solve all your problems, but it will solve a surprisingly large number of them. "Other studies have shown that healthy sleep affects our relationships by helping us better empathize with others, reduce our prejudices, modulate our anger, and be less susceptible to rejection. These new findings add to that science, demonstrating that a good night's sleep can help prevent loneliness, too," concludes Greater Good.

4. Looking at your phone makes hanging out less fun.

Science has finally confirmed it -- hanging out with friends really is less fun when people are looking at their phones.

"A study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology investigated how smartphones influence in-person interactions by inviting over 300 people to share a meal with friends or family at a cafe. Some people kept their phones out next to them, while others turned their phones on silent and stowed them away. Afterward, they filled out surveys about their experience," reports Greater Good.

The results are super important but not super shocking. Those who put their phones out of sight enjoyed their meal significantly more and were happier. The bottom line: hanging out with others just isn't as fun when phones intrude. Thankfully, taking action on this one couldn't be simpler. Simply put the damn thing away when you're with other people.

5. Diversity may make people kinder.

Last year the world may often have appeared full of tribalism, crassness, and simple unkindness. But science also suggested a promising way to find back against the nastiness -- live in a more diverse neighborhood.

In a series of experiments, researchers showed those living in more racially diverse neighborhoods were more likely to open their homes to strangers in need, more likely to identify with all of humanity rather than their countrymen alone, and more likely to report being willing to help their neighbors.

As Greater Good notes this isn't the final word on the issue -- other research has suggested contact with people from different backgrounds can push people to become defensive and nasty -- but in a year as bitter, tribal, and downright rude as 2018, we could all benefit from hearing these inspiring results.

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