My family just keeps getting more fun as the years pass

This post is for my friend Ali who asks questions that keep me young at heart. Today Ali asked “Does familiarity decrease the generated happiness?” [within a group]

I’d like to start by saying that I have zero interest in putting up barriers to human happiness. So if you disagree with what I say here, please be happy about it. I will be. 🙂

An easy way to answer this is to ask yourself, Ali, to honestly answer this question:

The answer to that question is your answer.

Here’s mine. In my experience, happiness is a collective phenomenon, even while we feel some elements—such as wonder, awe, and delight—also as individuals. I’ve experienced and observed that happiness happens in clusters and that it spreads following “paths of most acceptance” when we open ourselves up and let others in. Self-organizing groups make this spreading easier, in part because members within them become progressively more open and happy, and less fearful, and it’s simply easier for people around them to see this and experience this with them. At the community level, happiness appears to spread even more simply, but I’m way too early in my understanding to say much from that perspective yet. I’m not sure that words are even the best way to demonstrate that.

From our self-organizing group example (you, me, and Bas), I’d say, for us, familiarity increases happiness. Yet our familiarity is a living, growing, evolving familiarity. There are levels of vulnerability and intimacy and learning within us as a group that we have moved through together and many, many more yet to move through. At this point, I honestly don’t believe there is a limit unless we want there to be one—certainly not one that can be achieved in a single human lifetime. My experience within my own family has taught me this as well. My husband, sister, parents, and extended family are more enjoyable to be with and interesting to me now than ever before! (most days) 😉

That said, if you, for example, decided in the future that there were other bloggers you’d rather be talking with than me, and you began to show up here once/month out of a sense of obligation—not out of a genuine interest in connecting and learning together—at that point you might start asking half-hearted questions or stop asking questions entirely. If that happened, then my happiness would go down (as I suspect yours would too). At that point, happiness would decrease.

But that’s not what’s happening with us. We are continuing to evolve and change and grow together. Your questions cause me to think. You bring ideas out of my head and put them squarely before my eyes where I can get a decent look at them. We come up with collective ideas as well—ideas that don’t fully exist within us as individuals but that we find together as a group.

I’ve also experienced and witnessed self-organizing groups help members recognize when what matters most has changed to them as an individual and that its time for them to move on. So I am pretty certain in my own life today that a decrease in happiness due to non-evolving (aka dead) familiarity will not happen. Because I wish only the best for you, Ali, and this includes when the best for you means less, or even no more, time with me. When familiarity stops evolving can it be called familiarity anymore? I’m thinking here of two miserable individuals trapped in an unhappy marriage and allowing all sense of connection and intimacy to die. They still know each other, technically, I suppose, but I’d argue that they really don’t. They’re moving ever farther apart, and as they get farther apart, so grows their anger, resentment, and apathy. We have an old saying here: “familiarity breeds contempt.” That saying is out of date. We know better now. Apathy breeds contempt. And apathy comes from lack of intimacy and connection.

That won’t happen with us, Ali. You and I can’t settle for less. Because here, our group always gets a vote. Self-organizing groups push and pull us toward happiness even at the expense of the group itself. If you begin showing up here out of obligation, or asking rote questions out of an “I should” sense of duty instead of a genuine desire to be here learning together, I will notice. I will begin to suggest to you that what matters most to you has changed and that you need to explore what has changed and, possibly, consider moving on. You will do the same for me. As a researcher, I cannot be certain of much. But I am 110% certain of that. 🙂