The Real Joy of Being Together

No matter its size, our community is the source of true, lasting happiness.

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Posted in , Dec 21, 2017

Friends having tea

In his widely-read book, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, sociologist Robert Putnam examined vast stores of data that revealed a troubling truth: Americans were becoming more disconnected from each other—and in that isolation was a deep communal disengagement and personal dissatisfaction.

That book came out 2000, before the age of mobile technology truly took hold. Last year, a new book built on the conversation—Ruth Whippman’s America the Anxious: How Our Pursuit of Happiness Is Creating a Nation of Nervous Wrecks.

Whippman looked around at the culture of self-help, self-care and happiness-seeking in today’s America, and she noticed a critical flaw in the narrative of what is supposed to bring us authentic joy.

In 2001, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I wasn’t a good candidate for chemo. I took tamoxifen instead and gave my trouble to God—just as Dr. Peale suggested in his book, "Thought Conditioners". Since then I’ve remained cancer free. -Guideposts Magazine reader

Too often, she says, we are told, “Happiness comes from within.” But what we should understand is, “Happiness is other people.”

In an October op-ed in The New York Times, Whippman writes, “Study after study shows that good social relationships are the strongest, most consistent predictor there is of a happy life, even going so far as to call them a ‘necessary condition for happiness,’ meaning that humans can’t actually be happy without them. This is a finding that cuts across race, age, gender, income and social class so overwhelmingly that it dwarfs any other factor.”

Social engagement doesn’t have to mean raucous parties or huge circles of friends. As Whippman writes, “Despite claiming to crave solitude when asked in the abstract, when sampled in the moment, people across the board [including self-described introverts and extroverts] consistently report themselves as happier when they are around other people than when they are on their own.” This can mean a quiet cup of tea shared with a trusted confidant, or a small book club, walking group or a movie night with a neighbor.

Christmas Day is a wonderful time to reflect on the power of community, the real joy that comes from embracing the fact that human beings—introverts, extroverts, social butterflies and wallflowers alike—are innately social creatures who thrive when we cultivate relationships in ways that work for us.

As Helen Keller once said, “Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.” Together, we can make happiness a daily reality for ourselves…and others.

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