The Path to Happiness is Paved with Small Talk, Potlucks & Bear Hugs by Wanda Urbanska

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By Wanda Urbanska

One of the greatest perks of travel is meeting new people. Conversation starters are easy: “Where are you headed today?” or “Are you traveling on business or pleasure?” If both sides engage, you will quickly arrive at common ground.

In a Starbucks line at the Raleigh airport in January, I met a young man and, within minutes, we had established a connection in Jan Karski, the late hero of the Polish Underground, whose life and legacy I’m currently promoting. The young man had heard Karski lecture at Georgetown in the late 1990s, an experience that led to his matriculation at the renowned university, now his alma mater.

A woman I met on a recent plane ride – a psychiatrist specializing in adolescent disorders – provided critical insight about my teenage son at just the moment when I needed a second opinion. 

The opportunity to engage in deep and meaningful conversation is not some random personality quirk of extroverts like me but in fact a social and emotional lubricant as vital to one’s well being as healthful food, adequate sleep and regular exercise. In fact, social connections – not only with strangers at airports, but with neighbors, friends, family and intimates – offer one of the strongest predictors of human health and happiness.

“If you have a group of people in a room, and you assess how many friends they have, and how many regular contacts they have with these friends,” says John de Graaf, co-author with David K. Batker of What’s the Economy For, Anyway? Why It’s Time to Stop Chasing Growth and Start Pursuing Happiness (Bloomsbury: 2011). “You’ll find out that their chances of getting colds and the flu are strongly correlated with the numbers and quality of their friendships.” 

Increasingly our well being is being judged not by being well off but by an ongoing sense of contentment, connection and commitment – the feeling that life is good and that this sense of satisfaction is based on some internal infrastructure or belief system rather than resting on the emotional headline of the moment (“I just got engaged”; or “my boss snapped at me today”) or the size of one’s portfolio.

Concurrent with the worldwide economic downturn, many social scientists are focusing on the emerging field of happiness studies or happiness economics, based on the foundational belief that income alone is a poor predictor of human happiness. These scholars are developing empirical testing to rank not only the happiness of individuals but of cities, regions, and nations in the world. (Consistently, Scandinavian countries like Denmark and Sweden – where a high level of interpersonal trust exists – rank at the top of the heap.)

Ironically, this new gold rush to the mine of happiness has coincided with a global economic downturn and may be at least partially driven by the consumer response to it. In America, consumers are saving more, dreaming about and planning for their purchases rather than buying impulsively. With this advent of thoughtful consumption in America, individuals are deriving greater pleasure from their acquisitions by relishing what they do buy for longer periods. The smart money today rests with the so-called frugalistas, as opposed to those who flash their cash.

According to The New York Times some analysts predict that consumers – rather than returning to their old spending ways once the economy heats up again – may be “permanently adjusting their spending based on what they’ve discovered about what truly makes them happy or fulfilled.”

It appears that the recession has left its mark with lasting lessons about frugality and contentment.

Indeed, the best predictor of human happiness, according to Daniel Gilbert, Ph.D., the social psychologist at Harvard University and author of Stumbling on Happiness (Random House: 2007), is the amount of time people spend with family and friends. Dr. Gilbert points out that people derive more happiness from experiences than from material possessions. What’s more, most people have a happiness “set point,” he argues, from which they temporarily deviate, but to which they ultimately return. The spirits of a generally happy person will plummet after a divorce, car accident or job loss; and those of an unhappy person will be lifted by a bonus at work or purchasing a winning lottery ticket, but these shifts rarely last long.

That said, if you fall into the not-so-happy camp, the experts agree that there are ways you can train yourself to be happier. Following are some pointers:

1. Altruism really works. Giving to others without desire for recompense or recognition is the “most proven given” in raising one’s happiness quotient, says John de Graaf.

2. Practice gratitude. Counting your blessings – especially when things seem bleak – really does work miracles.

3. Bring your life into time balance, so you are not working 24-7 and thus starving those crucial relationships that need tending.

4. Experience time in nature. Seeing a lovely flower, rainbow or sunset is guaranteed to lift your spirits.

5. Join a social club, fraternal organization or religious group, and take it seriously. Turns out, things like bear hugs and pot lucks – with the same group of people on a regular basis – do us a world of good.

6. To determine your personal and community happiness quotient, take this survey, created by the Seattle-based Happiness Initiative, 

Much has been written on happiness from authors from Samuel Johnson to Thorstein Veblen to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Your local library will provide a treasure trove on the subject. Additional resources include:

Recommended resources:

Happiness: Lessons from a New Science 
by Richard Layard, (2005).

Get Satisfied: How Twenty People Like You Found the Satisfaction of Enough
edited by Carol Holst, (2007).

Thrive: Finding Happiness the Blue Zones Way
by Dan Buettner, (2010).


Online Resources

Excerpt from Thrive: Finding Happiness the Blue Zones Way at

Greater Good: The Science of a More Meaningful Life


Bio: Sustainability advocate and media consultant Wanda Urbanska is author or coauthor of nine books, including The Heart of Simple Living: 7 Paths to a Better Life (Krause: 2010). She directs the Jan Karski U.S. Centennial Campaign,


Photo credit: Relaxing conversation by 'Camera baba' aka Udit Kulshrestha Udit Kulshrestha


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