One of the founders of sociology, Emile Durkheim gathered data from across Europe in the late nineteenth century to study the factors that affect the suicide rate. His findings revealed that people who had fewer social constraints, bonds and obligations were more likely to kill themselves. Essentially, freedom can be hazardous to your well being. (Hear that Wallace?)
Durkheim found that people living alone were more likely to kill themselves; married people, less so; married people with children, still less. He concluded that people need obligations and constraints to provide structure and meaning to their lives.
Many years of further study have confirmed Durkheim's diagnosis. If you want to predict how happy someone is, or how long that person will live (genes and personality aside), find out about their social relationships.
Having strong social relationships strengthens the immune system, extends life, speeds recovery from surgery and reduces the risks of depression and anxiety disorders. OK, it is a tad more complex than this, but essentially true:-
'a very happy individual is likely to be a happily married optimistic extrovert, having an active social life with a network of good social support, who feels fulfilled at work, is religious, enjoys active recreational pursuits, exercises regularly and feels they are in good health. He or she is also likely to have their basic needs met and live in a democratic country which respects civil rights and freedom of speech.'
Giving support and caring for others is also important to happiness. 'We need to interact and intertwine with others; we need the give and the take; we need to belong.' (Baumeister and Leary, 1995)
Think hard before you break the bonds that may be extending your life and bringing you happiness, for example leaving homes, relationships, jobs and cities, in search of personal and professional fulfilment. Such an ideology of extreme personal freedom can be bringing on unhappiness.
Seneca got it right when he said, "No man can live happily who has regard to himself alone and transforms everything into a question of his own utility'.
(Some Sunday night thoughts with the help of The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt.)