Why do people make us happy?

Friends

People like to spend time with people. At least, most of us do. Socialising with family and friends is an integral part of our daily routines and without that contact we suffer, as people who have experienced isolation can attest to. But most animals on the planet are social creatures, so this is not a unique trait for humans. What is it about spending time with, usually, creatures of the same species that is universally craved? The answer is happiness.

Ok, that’s a rather broad statement. However, scientists have discovered when we spend time with people whom we like, our bodies release a hormone called oxytocin. Previously thought to be responsible for cementing the bond between mother and baby, it now appears to do much more. From the 1970s, scientists have understood oxytocin to be the key explanation for humans’ predominantly monogamous behaviour. Pairing up, as we usually do, causes the release of oxytocin which leads to a happiness. Usually. Fundamentally, however, when our bodies release oxytocin, a second hormone, serotonin, is triggered and this gives us our feeling of happiness.

In 2013, researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine linked oxytocin to the ability to establish trust. Through this, they have also related autism-spectrum disorders to a lack of oxytocin and are investigating treatments using this hormone. An experiment done at Stanford involving mice, another social animal with a surprisingly similar brain structure to a human, showed the desire for spending time with other mice could be eliminated if the oxytocin was blocked. It seems, therefore, that mice (and humans) want to be near one another because of this chemical. And the more time you spend with other people (or mice) the more your body releases. Therefore, the more social you are, the happier you are but also the more you want to socialise. Because oxytocin and serotonin are addictive and, unfortunately, can also be triggered by taking addictive drugs. Personally I’d recommend a good friendship circle over some cocaine.

There’s another, baser, side to the argument that humans crave contact: we’ve evolved over millennia to attach to others for safety. One caveman was far more vulnerable than a group of twenty cavemen, cavewomen and cavechildren, for example. And whilst most of us are no longer living in caves, that sensation of frailty and weakness when we’re on our own continues. I for one hated walking into a lecture theatre after class had started, hundreds of pairs of eyes staring at the girl who was late. I didn’t expect them to pull out their spears and kill me, but there was still something innate within my mind which felt targeted. It wasn’t my fault the bus was late! However, in my opinion, the research done at Stanford as well as other institutes worldwide proves that there is more to it than just safety in numbers.

At the end of the day, having friends makes people happy. Most people want to have people around them whom they like and who like them in return. It’s a pleasant feeling; to be liked. The pleasantness comes from the oxytocin and serotonin which releases as you spend time with friends. Friends and family are people with whom you can share you lives. The ups, the downs, the smiles, the tears. Everything you go through as an individual becomes a shared experience if you have friends and family to whom you can talk.

Being content with your friendship group and close to your family also has a positive effect on mental health. Aside from being less likely to suffer mental health issues, those of us with a good social support system are in a better position to deal with any problem such as stress or depression when they do occur. It should be noted here that if your friendship group includes people who are a bad influence, such as drug users, that would be detrimental to one’s mental health, regardless of how ‘happy’ being part of the group made you.

However, not everyone likes to be sociable. People who have suffered abuse or trauma as children often struggle to form any sort of social group as an adult. There are others who experience social anxiety and find meeting and connecting with new people difficult. But we’re all human, right? We all have serotonin and oxytocin hormones within us. So why does socialising make some people incredibly happy and other people utterly terrified? Well, that’s something to discuss in another blog, perhaps.

For the majority of us, socialising is a pleasant, happy experience. Being with friends and family is often the highlight of our week or even our year. So much of the modern festive season is about buying present for one another and spending time together rather than the religious roots of Christmas Day itself. It’s one of the happiest times of the year, however, regardless of why you celebrate. No matter how crowded your house, nor how badly burnt the turkey gets, nor how vicious the fight over the TV remote, it’s a happy occasion. Why? Because we’re with the people we most love and those people make us happy.