Happiness and Social Interaction

What strategies can you pursue to be happier next year?

Posted Sep 04, 2018

Nick Youngson CC BY-SA 3.0 Alpha Stock Images
Source: Nick Youngson CC BY-SA 3.0 Alpha Stock Images

If you knew what would make you happy, can you actually pursue a strategy that will increase your satisfaction with life?

This is not an idle question. There are lots of cases in which people know the ideal behavior they should take to get a desired outcome, and still fail to do it. Eating less and exercising more will reliably lead to better physical fitness for people who want to lose weight, yet it can be hard for people to maintain this behavior consistently.

In the case of happiness, one thing we know is that people who have a lot of social connections are generally happier than those who don’t. Of course, some of that effect goes in the opposite direction. If you’re a happy person, you probably have more people who want to hang out with you than if you’re not. At the same time, engaging with other people and working on projects that have a social impact beyond yourself can make you happy.

If you resolved to be more socially engaged in the next year, would that make you happy?

This question was explored in a paper in the August, 2018 paper in Psychological Science by Julia Rohrer, David Richter, Martin Brümmer, Gert Wagner, and Stefan Schmukle.

They looked at responses to a large-scale survey in Germany done each year that asked participants a number of questions including questions about life satisfaction as well as surveyed strategies about what people would do to improve their life satisfaction in the future.

The researchers looked specifically at data collected in 2014 and in 2015. In this sample, there were over 1,500 participants who were surveyed both years and were asked both about life satisfaction and strategies. Of these participants about 150 did not think their lives would get better in the future, and so they were not asked about the strategies they would use to improve their lives.

The remaining participants all wrote about their strategies to make themselves happier. About half of them actually wrote about things that might happen that would make them happier as opposed to things they would do to make themselves happy. The rest wrote about strategies.

The researchers evaluated the strategies people wrote for whether they involved some increase in social interaction over the next year. Some people wrote about things like getting healthier or finding a new job that are not really about social interaction. Others wrote about spending more time with family or friends, or starting to volunteer that do involve social interaction. 

Overall, the people who wrote an explicit strategy for getting happier were not different from those who did not both in the first and second year of the survey. So, it is not that those people who wrote a strategy were special in some way.

The people who wrote about a social strategy and those who wrote about a nonsocial strategy were about equally happy in the first year of the survey. However, the happiness of the people who wrote about a social strategy got a bit happier on average than those who wrote about a nonsocial strategy. The average increase for people who wrote about a social strategy was about a quarter of a point on the 11-point scale used to measure life satisfaction. It was statistically reliable, though.

The researchers looked at some of the other questions on the survey to see whether any of them might help to explain this difference. Respondents also gave information about how much time they spent socializing with other people during the year. People who wrote about adopting a social strategy tended to increase the amount of time they spent with other people more than those who wrote about a nonsocial strategy. This difference explained some of the increase in happiness from the first year to the second.

This research suggests that if you try explicitly to engage with more people, you can do things that will make you more socially connected. That, in turn, can make you at least a little happier.

References

Rohrer, J.M., Richter, D., Brümmer, M., Wagner, G.G., & Schmukle, S.C. (2018). Successfully striving for happiness: Socially engaged pursuits predict increases in life satisfaction. Psychological Science, 29(8), 1291-1298.