Ulterior Motives

How goals, both seen and unseen, drive behavior

Why Other People Are the Key to Our Happiness

Best friend or barista, research shows how our interactions affect our outlook.

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It is no surprise that social interactions can be a great source of happiness. A holiday spent with close friends and family is not only enjoyable in the moment, but also a source of wonderful memories for years to come. And being in a great romantic relationship is uplifting.

But what about the large number of other people with whom you interact each day—the cashier at the supermarket who smiles and tells you to have a great day; the colleague you pass in the hall who nods as you walk by; the friend of a friend you chat with for a minute about a TV show. Do those interactions also make you happier?

In the 1970s, sociologist Mark Granovetter looked at the structure of people’s social networks. His work suggests that you can loosely characterize people’s contacts into strong ties and weak ties. Strong ties are the bonds among family, friends, and close work colleagues. Weak ties involve the people you see only on occasion. You do not have particularly deep or regular contact with your weak ties.

Research in business suggests that weak ties are extremely important for passing information across groups. For example, a company may have lots of pockets of people who work closely together. The members of this group share information extensively with each other. But that information can only flow from one group to another through weak ties in which one member of the group shares it with someone primarily connected to a different group within the company.

So, can weak ties contribute to your happiness?

This question was explored in a paper by Gillian Sandstrom and Elizabeth Dunn published in the July, 2014 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin

In one study, 53 adults over the age of 25 were given two clickers. On six different days, participants counted the number of people they interacted with that day using the clickers. They used one clicker for people with whom they had a close relationship (strong ties) and the other for people with whom they had a more distant relationship (weak ties). On each day, participants also rated their well-being and their sense of belonging to a community. Participants also filled out a personality inventory, because basic personality characteristics are also related to people’s well-being. All of the analyses were done ensuring that the results could not just be predicted from the basic personality characteristics.

On average, people interacted with 6.7 strong ties and 11.4 weak ties in a day. One way you might think to analyze these data is to see whether the number of interactions predicts happiness overall.  Interestingly, though, differences in happiness between people were not that strongly predicted by the overall number of interactions they had.

However, the number of interactions people had did predict day-to-day differences in sense of belonging and happiness. Strong ties were particularly important. On days when people interacted many times with their strong ties, they reported that they were happier and felt more like they belonged to the community than when they interacted fewer times with their strong ties. In this sample, interactions with weak ties predicted people’s sense of belongingness, but only weakly predicted happiness. That is, more interactions with acquaintances increased people’s sense that they belonged to a community, but had only a weak relationship to their overall happiness.

A second study with the same method examined 58 first-year college students. They also kept track of their interactions using clickers. You might expect the results with this group to be stronger, because first-year college students are just starting to form a new set of relationships.

In this study, the number of interactions with both strong and weak ties was related to the students’ sense of belongingness overall. So, those students who interacted with a lot of people were happier and felt a greater sense that they belonged to the college community than those who interacted with only a few people.

In addition, on days when people interacted with both their close friends and their acquaintances, they were happier than on days when they interacted less often with their close friends and their acquaintances. 

What does all of this mean?

The interactions we have with other people affect the way we feel about life. Our close relationships keep us grounded and influence both happiness and the sense that we are part of a larger community. Interestingly, even our interactions with people we do not know that well give us a sense that we are part of that larger community. When we are first introduced to that community, those interactions and that feeling of belonging also increase our happiness.

So, smile at people when you walk down the street. You just might be helping to make someone’s day.

 

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Art Markman, Ph.D., is a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas whose research spans a range of topics in the way people think.

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