What Really Makes People Happy
For one thing, we're yearning to discover new, deep connections with others. In fact, many of us are investing in the most private form of "between" there is: the oxytocin factory known as romantic intimacy. Memberships at the online-dating site Match.com were up 16 percent in January compared with the same period in 2008; in February, Match's competitor PlentyofFish.com saw a whopping 94 percent rise in traffic over the previous year. And despite the sharp contraction in most consumer spending since the economic crisis blew up last fall, Babeland, a sex toys retailer with four outlets in New York City and Seattle, has seen double-digit increases in sales; during Valentine's Day weekend, sales were up 26 percent over the previous year. "We haven't seen a spike like this since just after September 11," says cofounder Claire Cavanah. "People are nesting. They're looking for a stress reliever. They want to be comforted." (And, evidently, they want vibrators. Sleek, fuchsia-colored vibrators.)
We're sweating out stress at the gym, too, which also hits the V-spot: Aerobic exercise and yoga enhance vagus nerve output—as does meditation. The Equinox fitness club chain, with locations nationwide, reports an 18 percent increase in usage of its gyms since last autumn; attendance at Curves, a women's-only national chain, was up 22 percent in January 2009 compared with the previous year. Memberships at Life Time Fitness, which has locations in 18 states, are up 14 percent. And yoga teachers appear to be the new first responders to (economic) emergency. Invoke, a yoga and Pilates studio in Indianapolis, has seen higher revenues and attendance since last fall, according to owner Amy Peddycord, whose $5 community yoga classes are always packed. David Sunshine, owner of Dallas Yoga Center, laments that he has to keep turning people away from his new yoga-for-stress classes.
Groups of people sun saluting through hard times together is an indicator of what Haidt calls our "hive psychology." "Evolutionary history over the past 15,000 to 20,000 years involves a lot of synchronous movement, chanting, dancing—the temporary creation of larger groups," he says. "It's a way of ramping up the 'between' to make people feel part of something greater than themselves." Joining a hive could be as simple as laughing or gasping along with an audience at a comedy or thriller (movie attendance is up 17.5 percent this year). Or as profound as huddling in freezing temperatures with 1.8 million of your fellow Americans at the National Mall on Inauguration Day.
President Obama's call to service has given a big boost to one of the most reliable vehicles for uplift: volunteer work, which forges yet another kind of nourishing "between." Sonya Lyubomirsky, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, has consistently found that performing acts of kindness is highly correlated with increased happiness, improving both our self-image and—oxytocin alert!—our sense of community. One beneficiary of the service surge, the volunteer organization New York Cares, reports a 30 percent increase in prospective volunteers attending orientation sessions in January compared with the same period in 2008, and a monumental 75 percent increase from February 2008 to February 2009.
"People will increasingly turn to volunteer work to lift their spirits during the economic crisis," predicts trend analyst Kiwa Iyobe, of the New York City–based marketing consultancy Suite 2046. "A lot of people seem to have learned through their experiences during the presidential campaign that being part of a community and making a difference—even a small one—is deeply satisfying. No matter how busy or stressed they are right now, volunteers report that they always feel better after taking a few hours to do something positive for their community along with a bunch of like-minded strangers. It has the effect of putting their own lives and problems into perspective."