Happiness Begets Happiness; And What it Means for Conflict Resolution



Have you ever noticed that happy people are considerably more likely to behave in a way that makes other people happy as well?

Maybe it is obvious, but I only realised recently how true it really is. If I think of people who lead fulfilling, balanced, and happy lives, they behave with more kindness towards me (and others) compared to those who do not. This may show in terms of politeness, less aggression, or in compassion for others (e.g. by donating money for a good cause).

What’s more, happiness does not only seem to be a possible reason (among others) for people to behave well socially, but a certain level of happiness, contentment, and satisfaction is actually a prerequisite for a happiness-spreading behaviour.1 For example, I cannot think of somebody who is significantly unhappy and still spreads happiness on a consistent basis to those he or she meets. Do you know such a case?

What is the reason for this? Is happiness-spreading behaviour a “luxury” we can only afford once we have our own house in order? Or do we perhaps not “grant” others happiness if we are not happy ourselves because we envy them?

Unhappiness Begets Unhappiness

Even stronger than “being happy” and “behaving in a way that spreads happiness”-relationship may be the one between its ugly brother pair: unhappy people seem to be much more likely to behave in a way that actively causes unhappiness. For example, this can be observed in many personal conflicts: somebody inflicts pain or suffering on the other party, leading to a need of retaliation, causing a negative downward spiral which is very difficult stop.

It is important to point out, however, that somebody’s initial unhappiness (leading to unsocial, or negative behaviour), was not necessarily caused by the party who is victimized. This may have been the case – and would be perceived as a stronger pain (with a stronger need for retaliation), as experiments showed2 – but it didn’t have to.

For example, when I behaved aggressively towards my colleagues at work recently, I discovered later that the underlying reason was a stomach pain, which I didn’t consciously realize at first. After identifying the real problem, and taking medicine, the pain diminished and so did my aggression towards my colleagues.

I learned another lesson from this experience: When I didn’t know what the real problem was, I used other (external) explanations for my unhappiness, such as my colleagues not delivering the quality in work I was expecting from them. Of course, this was not the real reason; I've learned that if I feel the need to behave unsocial in any way, I mustn't blame somebody else for it, but instead, take some time for introspection and then take care of whatever personal issues I'm facing. After all, unhappiness is always the result of our brain’s interpretations, not the external factors per se.

Looking for “Lightning Rods”

It would be interesting to find out why we blame other people when we feel uncomfortable. Is it because when we are unhappy (e.g. in a state of pain) nature is “telling us” to change the situation urgently, which requires our pain to have a direction (“Lightning Rod”)?

A possible way to verify this hypothesis would be by observing what happens in the following scenario: Person A, who is significantly unhappy (e.g. in a state of pain), is approached by Person B, who then causes an additional – but small – reason for unhappiness (e.g. by criticizing or giving a minor insult). I believe it is possible that Person A channels a large portion of his pain towards Person B (causing a need for “retaliation”), although Person B’s behaviour would not justify this to such an extent.

Beyond Personal Conflicts

I believe the stated points above also exists on a much larger scale, e.g. in national conflicts.3 In order to make my following points clearer, I am going to use the Israeli-Palestine conflict as an example, without having any prior knowledge about it (could be any other national conflict).

The following is a thought experiment to illustrate the “channelling of emotions” on a national scale. Let’s say a disease breaks out in Israel, bringing considerable unhappiness to the Israeli people. I believe this would be bad news for Palestine as well, in light of the Israel-Palestine conflict (even though Palestine didn’t have anything to do with the disease).

Another extreme example in the other direction (please don’t think I’m crazy… sometimes it just becomes clearer with extreme examples): If both parties were extremely happy (e.g. “on drugs”) it would be easy to resolve the conflict on the spot. The mindsets would be shifted to asking: Why inflict pain and suffering on others? Who cares about the past? Without getting too philosophical (or scientific ;-)): does the past “exist” at all?

First Conclusions

The main conclusion from the above is:

“If you want to resolve a conflict, primarily focus on increasing the parties’ happiness”

In the example of the Israeli-Palestine conflict, a possible way to work towards conflict-resolution might be by assessing the current state of the parties’ happiness, with a common goal of increasing Palestine's happiness first, as there is more room for improvement (assumption). This could be achieved by sending humanitarian aid to Palestine and thereby successively increasing their happiness, laying the foundation for a “rational” solution to the conflict, whatever it may look like.4

Admittedly, Israel does not seem very likely to start spending significant amounts of money for Palestine's cause. However, vice versa to the statement above that the initial unhappiness of the aggressor did not have to be caused by the later victim, the increase in happiness can also be initiated by a third party5. In other words, anybody interested in resolving this conflict should evaluate the option to increase overall happiness in Palestine, even though they may have nothing to do with the conflict at first glance.6

There are several other implications from the overall conclusion to “primarily focus on the parties’ happiness”7, but before diving into those, I would be interested in your feedback. What is your opinion? Does the primary focus on the parties’ happiness make sense?

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1) May it even be possible to gauge somebody’s happiness by assessing how well he or she behaves towards others?

2) See The Economist, Dec 18th 2008: “Malice: A forethought: Pain is Enhanced if Deliberately Inflicted”

3) … as all big conflicts are based on the feelings of individuals only. We may abstract it by saying “country x is unhappy that country y did something”, but a country itself does not have feelings, it’s always individual people.

4) I believe the “rational” agreement in a conflict – for example in a “you get X, we get Y”-type of way (country X withdraws from territories Y and Z, in return … etc.) – will only succeed if it reaches more satisfaction and happiness on an emotional level. It is not so important if the solution is correct from an “objective” point of view (whatever that is).

5) However, it would be more effective if the aid comes directly from the (former) opponent as it would demonstrate goodwill and efforts for conciliation (vice versa to mentioned experiment in the second footnote).

6) If this thinking is correct, it would be a nice solution as it is laying the foundation for long-term happiness as well as causing more happiness directly.

7) One of them being a detailed review of the application of sanctions.

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