[Food for Thought] Crowdsourcing happiness: Reddit uncovers some ingredients for a fulfilling life.

Using the enormously entertaining website ‘Reddit‘ and a free Saturday afternoon, I decided it’d be interesting to trawl the site looking for people’s anecdotes about what made them happy – from the smallest things (the act of sitting on the patio outside with a coffee) to the most significant (radical changes in job/living location/hobbies). Why do this? For a long time, I’ve found the pursuit of happiness a fascinating thing to ponder. Simply put: what were the most common actions that people took, or scenarios they found themselves in, which resulted in them feeling happy or content? Were the cliches about happiness true? I wanted to put together a compendium of happiness based purely on a hell of a lot of anecdotes. What would I find? And what would be the limitations?

Firstly, it’s worth pointing out that this is predominantly the North American view of happiness (given the location of most of the site’s users), though making sure to include anecdotal posts only (as opposed to recycled quotes and speculative theory-crafting) might have reduced the cultural bias significantly. I can be reasonably comfortable with the finding that, if a *lot* of people are reporting the same thing, such as financial security, it probably has a big role to play in overall contentment. In addition, perhaps another limitation is that people might only be happy because they have achieved what they believe is expected of them by society; not that it takes away from their feelings of happiness – just that different societies value different things and we can say that in those situations, the particular thing which brought someone happiness might be less significant in European or Asian countries. 

In any case, here’s how I did the research. I used the ‘AskReddit’ sub-section exclusively, and stuck to the search term ‘happiness’. I then looked for threads referring to things like ‘what makes you happy?’, or ‘are you happy and why?’. After reading hundreds of posts, I gradually filtered them down into categories using content analysis. For example, if someone said how much their wife/girlfriend cheered them up every day, this would fall under the category ‘relationships’. Someone else talking about driving along in the morning, music blazing, this would fall under ‘media’. I tallied up all these categories and then started combining them.  Friends, Family and Pets all came under the same category of ‘Social interaction’, for example.

So here’s a shiny graph for you.

There’s several interesting findings to point out here. Some are completely obvious and mere repetitions of what is common knowledge, others are more subversive and even counter-intuitive:

Firstly, At least half of all the things which made people happy are completely under most people’s control and are feasible things to aim towards – for example, hobbies, healthy lifestyle, personal goals, working towards acceptance of things which can’t be changed, some social interaction and acts of kindness. This is hardly a surprise, though it serves as a powerful motivator.

Secondly, there are many different things which make people happy. Another no-brainer, but this helps to reinforce the concept that there is no specific ‘right path’ to take which will undoubtedly lead to personal fulfilment. I’ll get back to this later.

Finally, relationships form only a small portion of the whole happiness pie. People often mentioned their significant others, but only in a sea of other things which contributed – most of which fitting into other categories like financial security, friends and doing what they love doing in life. This is a particularly fascinating finding because it runs counter to observed behaviour in some lonely single people; the longing, the desperation and the regret at missed romantic opportunities; the ‘forever alone’ condition. But if the words of happy people are to be believed, take heed: salvation does not come in the form of a significant other for most people; rather a relationship is a nice bonus on top of contented foundations.

But, then, why did I come across examples of people who said they were unhappy because they were single? The answer appears to be in the pie. People are not unhappy because they are single. They are unhappy because, to them, nothing in life appears to give fulfilment other than a relationship. To them, the pie might as well be 90% purple. They disregard all the myriad other things which bring fulfilment in search of that one elusive girl or guy. Perhaps they haven’t truly engaged themselves. Perhaps they haven’t strummed a guitar and felt all the stresses of the day melt away. Perhaps they haven’t sat outside on a clear night and watched the stars. Maybe they have no goals in life, other than to be able to say they are in a relationship – and once in a relationship, then what? What happens if things turn sour? Is there nothing, then, left but regret and bitterness? This is the outcome for someone so dependent, so utterly one-track-minded, that their entire world is shattered when their partner decides they are not to walk the same path any more.

And this is the crux of the matter: it is not the relationship or lack thereof that creates unhappiness. It is the elephant in the room: the other 87% of fulfilling activities that are overlooked in this ‘quest’ for a romantic partner. When the search for that one girl or guy becomes the hobby one engages in, especially at the expense of other opportunities for happiness, is it any wonder this demographic become so miserable? I might add, in addition, that a lot of the other options are better bets for happiness in any case: becoming fitter and having more energy is unlikely to make you more miserable, whereas fighting and falling out whilst in a relationship can ruin your day.

Once again, I need to mention the limitations of this little experiment. Obviously, some things bring greater happiness than others, and perhaps the best long-term relationships bring a joy for some that is unmatched by any other passion or experience in life; and it is this which some long for. But in that case, why would happy and content people mention anything else at all? Would they not, in an attempt to help the unhappy out, state plainly and simply, that all other options for fulfilment in life are false; that a relationship is the only way?

I wanted to double-check; to make sure. But I had that gut feeling; I already knew the answer was in the 87%.


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