A couple of weeks ago I, and a group of my friends, took a trip to the Emerald Isle to celebrate one of us turning the big 4-0. We’ve known each other for nearly 30 years (I know what you’re thinking – how can that be possible? You don’t look like you could be a day over 25 from the profile photo). We don’t get to meet up as often as we’d like due to work schedules, living in different countries and the way that life just takes you in different directions. But when we do it’s like we’ve never been apart. We had a great time reminiscing about the things we got up to growing up, taking the mick out of each other and partook in a few beverages.
The other day I was browsing news articles and the like, when I came across one that stated, ‘Choosing the right friends is the key to happiness’. The report was centred on research by Professor Moran Cerf, a neuroscientist from Northwestern University. He’s been studying decision-making for over a decade and he concluded that the surest way to maximise happiness is about deciding who you spend time with.
Professor Cerf thinks that the best way to achieve long-term satisfaction is to surround yourself with the right people. There are two main points that led him to believe that having the right personal company is the most important factor to happiness.
Firstly, making decisions is tiring. And with so many choices in all aspects of our lives even the simplest thing like what to watch on TV, where to go for dinner or what outfit to wear on a night out can become a big deal. Research has found that we have a limited amount of mental energy to devote to making choices. Professor Cerf has made it a personal policy to always pick the second item on the specials list when he’s out to eat for that very reason – it eliminates the need to decide what to have.
The second is that we humans believe we are fully in control of our happiness by making these choices. So long as we make the right choices we’ll be on the path to life satisfaction. Cerf rejects this idea, as he believes that our decisions can be clouded by biases and we misremember bad experiences as good and vice versa. We generally do not make good decisions and let our emotions turn rational decisions into irrational ones.
His neuroscience research found that, when we spend time with someone, our brain waves start to resemble theirs. Meaning the people we hang out with can actually impact upon how we engage with reality. Think about your friends and family and what happens when you’re around them. If you’re with someone who speaks quickly, do you start to speak quickly too? Being around a comedian makes you feel funny. And likewise, have you been around someone who is stressing out and it makes you feel stressed out too?
Professor Cerf believes that in order to maximise happiness and minimise stress we need to reduce the number of decisions we make, by surrounding ourselves with people that embody the traits we prefer. Over time we’ll naturally pick up those desirable attitudes and behaviours, avoiding mentally taxing low-level decisions. For example, by making the decision of who to go to dinner with and picking someone he trusts, Cerf believes they’ll pick a restaurant he likes and, as his earlier personal restaurant policy states, he’ll be eating the second item on the menu. So, by making one larger decision he avoids two smaller decisions.
So, the most important decision we can make is who we surround ourselves with. I’m going to have a think about what traits I need to improve myself, and will be in search of those to help me achieve them. Definitely someone to encourage me to exercise more and maybe a professional musician – so I can be playing at the Royal Albert Hall this time next year (I’m not sure the last one will happen though!).