Just Say Yes: Happiness in individuals, dyads, and groups

            Where does happiness reside?  Happiness resides in groups, dyads and individuals.  In fact, I believe that we cannot be completely happy if we are unhappy in any one of these relationships.  Someone who has many friends and is the ‘life of the party’ but drinks themselves into a stupor when they go home cannot be truly happy.  Likewise, an introvert who is content to sit alone and read for hours but despises being with other human beings cannot be truly happy.  Why?  We all spend a part of our lives alone and with others.  We must find balance.  Happiness can be found everywhere, if you cultivate it.

Get Happy in Groups

As Csikszentmihalyi points out, the phrase “being alive” in Latin literally means “to be among men” (1990, p. 165).  Human beings are happier when we are around other people.  Csikszentmihalyi writes that we are “biologically programmed to find other humans the most important objects in the world” (1990, p. 165).  Other people are not just interesting, they are essential to our survival.  Haidt mentions in The Happiness Hypothesis that having strong social relationships strengthens the immune system, extends life (even more than quitting smoking), speeds recovery from surgery, and reduces the risks of depression and anxiety disorders (2006).  As human beings we are intertwined.  We are all part of the hive (Haidt, 2006).  We function as individuals while also functioning as groups.

Dynamic Dyads

In A Primer in Positive Psychology, Peterson discusses the love of mother and child.  The brains of new mothers temporarily suppress a region associated with negative emotion and social comparison (2006).  This change allows for the strong bond essential for the baby’s survival creating comfort for both mother and child. (Peterson, 2006).  As Harlow’s famous experiment with monkeys showed, mothers provide more than milk.

We also find happiness in our friendships.  Aristotle said, “For without friends no one would choose to live, though he had all other goods.” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990, p. 188).  Young adults and retires are actually happier with friends than with spouses (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990).  Peterson outlines six reasons why friends like each other: proximity (living close to one another), similarity (personality, values, and beliefs), complementary of needs (who satisfies our needs), high ability (competence), attractiveness, and reciprocity (we like those who like us) (2006).  I would add familiarity to Peterson’s list.  The more we know someone, the more we like them.

Idiosyncratic Individuals

There are many ways to cultivate happiness when we are alone.  We can increase our happiness by structuring our space and time like Dorothy, the farmer, did in Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow (1990).  In addition we can choose activities that are active, involve concentration, increase our skills and develop ourselves.  These activities create flow ( Csikszentmihalyi, 1990).  We can also cultivate flow by constantly focusing our consciousness on manageable tasks (1990).  The Fredrickson Open Heart Study suggests that meditation – another form of ordering consciousness – can make individuals happier over time.  The evidence showed that subjects experienced increasing levels of happiness even after her study ended (2009).

Happiness for Humanity

I recently presented an overview of the meditation research to one of my newest clients.  The company has a yoga room that could double as a meditation room when not in use.  While it might be more effective to designate a specific room for meditation, using the yoga space would suffice.  A meditation teacher could be hired to lead classes and the Fredrickson’s research could be presented to bolster the confidence of the analytical participants in efficacy of this positive intervention.  This empirical research supports my client’s use of meditation to increase happiness.

Signature strengths and job crafting are the next interventions that I plan on presenting to my clients.  Seligman, Steen, Park and Peterson’s study (2005) provides the data that supports the effectiveness of signature strengths.  However,  the language needs to be modified for the corporate world.  I will also share Amy Wrzesniewski’s work in job crafting (Berg, Dutton & Wrzesniewski, 2007)  as well as the new research in positive organizational scholarship (Cameron, Dutton & Quinn, 2003).

Contentment Conclusions

Haidt says that “happiness comes from between” (2006, p. 213).  I believe that happiness comes from ‘among’.  Happiness does not exist in some vague middle ground.  Happiness is found when you are alone, when you are with one person and when you are in groups.  While Haidt claims that you cannot find, acquire or achieve happiness directly (2006), positive psychology research shows that you can.  Not only can you find happiness but the research (Seligman, et al., 2005; Lyubomirsky, 2008 and others) illuminates various paths for getting there.


Berg, J. M., Dutton, J. E., & Wrzesniewski, A. (2007).  What is job crafting and why does it matter?  Manuscript submitted for publication. University of Michigan.

Cameron, K. S., Dutton, J. E. & Quinn, R. E. (2003).  Positive Organizational Scholarship :  Foundations of a new discipline.  San Francisco:  Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990).  Flow:  The psychology of optimal experience.  New York:  Harper Perennial.

Fredrickson, B.  (2009). Positivity:  Groundbreaking research reveals how to embrace the hidden strength of positive emotions, overcome negativity, and thrive.  New York:   Crown Publishers.

Fredrickson, B. L., and M. F. Losada (2005), “Positive affect and the complex dynamics   of human flourishing,” American Psychologist 60: 678-86.

Haidt, J. (2006).  The Happiness Hypothesis:  Finding modern truth in ancient wisdom. New York:  Basic Books.

Lyubomirsky, S. (2008) The How of Happiness:  A scientific approach to getting the life you want.  New York:  Penguin Press.

Peterson, C. (2006).  A primer in positive psychology.  New York:  Oxford University Press.

Seligman, M. E. P., Steen, T. A., Park, N., Peterson, C.  (2005)  Empirical validation of interventions.  American Psychologist, 60 (5), 410-421.


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About Shannon Polly, MAPP

Shannon M. Polly is a corporate communications trainer, facilitator and speaker and founder of Shannon Polly & Associates, a leadership development company in downtown D.C. Shannon works with executives, managers and employees of Fortune 500 companies in two areas: executive presence/presentation skills (based on over a decade of experience as a professional actor/singer in New York) and positive psychology. Shannon is one the first 100 people in the world who have received her Master in Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP) degree from the University of Pennsylvania under Dr. Martin Seligman. She also holds a graduate degree from the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art in classical acting and a B.A. with honors from Yale University. She also holds a coaching certificate from the Georgetown Leadership Coaching Program.

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