Social connection determines happiness more than money, gender, race, where we live, education, and even the number on the scale.
by Karen Hawthorne – first published in Healthing on March 9, 2023
This is the first of five interviews in the “Your Health Matters Summit” series, where we spend a few moments speaking to each of the experts who shared their expertise for the summit, which was hosted by Obesity Matters. These stories will explore obesity from a medical perspective; take a look at happiness and why it’s not necessarily connected to weight; learn about food addiction; and finally get why eating less and exercising more isn’t always the answer. First, Gillian Mandich on what it takes to be happy.
Gillian Mandich is a happiness expert, researcher and public speaker in Toronto who wants to help people identify what makes them happy and develop their “happiness muscle” so they can smile more often. Turns out, happiness likely has little to do with notions about ideal weight and numbers on the scale. Here are some of her tips on happiness and health.
How do you define happiness?
Mandich: What’s interesting is that if I was to go out on the streets of Toronto right now and poll a hundred people and ask them for the definition of happiness, I would probably get a hundred different definitions. And yet when we use the word, we all know what we’re talking about. It’s kind of like when we define emotions, a lot of it is very subjective as well. The definition that I use, which is one that is commonly cited in the literature, comes from Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky, a happiness researcher from California. It’s the experience of joy, contentment and positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful and worthwhile. The reason I like that definition is because it has two pieces: it’s how you’re feeling in the moment and the longevity-plus-purpose piece. It’s like a narrower zoom and then a bigger picture wider zoom.
The definition casts a wide net because if you think about somebody who makes a touchdown at the Super Bowl and they’re doing their end zone dance, they’re happy. When I leave a yoga studio on a Sunday and walk home, I just feel so peaceful and blissful and happy. So the expression of it can be different for people. More than how we define it, I think what’s more important is for people to actually know that for themselves. Because it’s really about what happiness is to us.
How did we as a society get to the point where we equate happiness with weight?
M.: I think most people would think that weight and happiness are correlated. But what’s interesting is that we don’t quite see that in the data. There’s data out of Indonesia, for example, where increased weight is correlated with increased happiness because in terms of socioeconomic status, the country’s is very low. There is status to be able to afford food, to eat and to gain weight.
Another study compared the United States and China. In China, they found that elevated weight was associated with elevated happiness. But in the United States, we saw no effects, so there wasn’t a correlation either way. It’s not clear, but I think a lot of our happiness comes down to our mindset and how we feel about ourselves and our experiences, which have nothing to do with the numbers on a scale. If somebody feels that their excess weight is making them insecure or undermining their confidence, we can absolutely see [how that would impact happiness]. But we also see people at every weight who are happy and people at every weight who are unhappy.
For a lot of people, it really depends on what they’re focusing on, how they feel in their body, their perceptions. For some, [their weight] might not be something to really think about. Yet other people, and even people who are an average weight or even underweight, it may be very detrimental to them to focus on because they’re comparing themselves. We see this across the board with happiness. As soon as you start comparing yourself, it’s a slippery slope into a place that’s not good mentally, whether you’re comparing your clothes or your food to someone else’s beautiful clothes or food that they see on Instagram.
Do you believe there is a link between weight and happiness?
M.: There can be but not necessarily. It isn’t a given like A equals B. Anecdotally, among research participants that I’ve worked with, we see that people at every weight often or can also struggle with their happiness. So it isn’t necessarily the case that people who are thin or average weight are happier than people who are living with obesity. A lot of it comes down to looking at in terms of our capacity for happiness. There are three main influences on our happiness — your genetics, your environment, and then your thoughts, actions and behaviours.
So, we’re born with our genetics. Then we look at environments. Think about the pandemic. We can all understand how when our environment changes, if we’re locked in, for example, it can change how we feel. That’s a big factor. And then looking at the third piece, our thoughts, our actions, and our behaviours. That’s the piece that my research focuses on because that’s the piece that’s most amenable to change since we live in our heads every day and we control what we do.
What about health and happiness?
M.: I used to research childhood obesity where I was using BMI (body mass index), which is calculated with height and weight to determine inclusion in my research. I kept thinking that I’m using height and weight to determine if a child can be a participant in my study, but there’s got to be something else out there. It isn’t a number on a scale that can help to promote health. That’s how I came across happiness research. I started reading this literature about how when we’re happier, we tend to be healthier as well. We tend to make better health choices in terms of nutrition, in terms of sleep, physical activity, and in terms of social connections and even our thought patterns.
If you could pass on a recipe for happiness, what would it be?
M.: As soon as I tell somebody I’m a happiness researcher, the number one question I get asked is, ‘What’s the magic pill? What’s the one thing I need to do or buy or get or say in order to be happy?’ There’s no magic pill. I can’t tell somebody how to be happy. We have to figure it out for ourselves. Also, it’s not just like we figured out a formula and then we’re done.
When I was at Western University, I did a lot of interviews with students and I would ask them, ‘Are you as happy as you think you possibly could be?’ I didn’t have a single student ever tell me yes. So then the next question I would ask is, ‘What makes you happy?’ And one of two things would happen. Some participants, before they even started their exhale, would answer, ‘My mom, my dog, my cat, my sister,’ like a reflex. Or, there was a long pause that meant they had to think about it. So if we don’t actually know what makes us happy, no wonder we’re not as happy as we possibly could be. And even when we do know, the other thing is — I see these quote cards on Instagram all the time and say “choose happy” — it’s not that simple, it requires work.
From a personal perspective, I don’t like feeling stressed. I don’t like feeling anxious. I don’t like being depressed, so why don’t I figure out, as someone who studies happiness, how to be happy all the time? What I quickly learned is that it’s impossible to be happy all the time. One of the main ingredients [in the recipe for happiness] is to give ourselves grace to feel the full spectrum of human emotion and to know that we can’t be happy all the time.
If you think about it, you set a goal and you’re working toward it. Even if you don’t get there, you’re moving in the right direction. But then I thought, ‘What happens when you don’t reach a goal?’ Well, you start to get critical of yourself and your negative self-talk comes in. That’s what we see. It’s really about starting to understand that happiness is a practice and we can’t be happy all the time.
Any other ideas as to how to create more happiness in our lives?
M.: Harvard has a study called the Harvard Study of Adult Development . It’s the longest running study in the space. Basically, they started following participants when they were 18, either Harvard students or other students, and then they added a second group of non-university students. They’ve followed them so long that they’re dying now. They found that the number one predictor of both our long-term health and our happiness is social connection. So above how much money we have, above our income, our gender, above our race, above where we live, above our education level — above any of those things — the number one thing is social connections. So that’s a really important thing to realize: how important connection is to us as humans, because we get busy. The phone call to a friend, the going out for a coffee or for dinner are things that can fall off our to-do list when we get really busy.
The other thing is that connection doesn’t need to necessarily mean a lot of time. Some research shows that even the conversation you had with somebody at the airport while you’re having lunch or waiting for a flight. Or the conversation when I walk my dog through downtown Toronto and people will stop — he’s a little French bulldog, you chit chat. All those interactions are not trivial.
The other piece that’s really big in terms of our happiness is what we call in research “autonomy.” Autonomy is this idea that our feelings are self-chosen and self-endorsed, which essentially just means that there are some things in our life that we can control and there are some things in our life that we cannot control. Autonomy is about really starting to choose to give more of our focus and our attention to the things in our life that we can control. What we know from research is that autonomy is more of a predictor of our happiness than how much money we have, how popular we are, how good our sex life is. It’s more important than all those things.
Your takeaway message?
M.: Happiness is like a muscle. Like you go to the gym and you lift weight and over time you get stronger. That’s what happens with happiness, too. If you do things every single day that make you happy, over time it’s like your happiness muscle has grown. What we want to do is think throughout the day, ‘Where are opportunities that I can create small bursts of happiness?’ Because when you start to add them up cumulatively, that’s actually what adds up to a happy life.
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