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Acquaintances Are Good for You

Interactions with people we don't know well can promote mental health.

Key points

  • Evidence shows that regular contact with acquaintances helps to promote mental well-being.
  • Older adults with more casual connections have more positive emotions and are less likely to become depressed.
  • College students tend to feel happier and less depressed when they have more daily interactions with people.
Odua Images/Adobe Stock
Source: Odua Images/Adobe Stock

Throughout a normal week, you may chat with a delivery driver who stops at your home, strike up a conversation with the person you always see at the gym, or trade recipes with an acquaintance from the dog park.

Most people have dozens of interactions each week with others they recognize but don’t know well. In some instances, you may not even know the other person’s name!

For decades, researchers have investigated the impact of what sociologists call “weak ties” — acquaintances that you see regularly but aren’t close with. These could be co-workers, former classmates, members of the same social group, or just simply that person you recognize from the subway most mornings. The body of evidence shows that these interactions are more important than you may think.

A recent summary of the evidence on social connections notes the importance of weak or casual contacts in promoting well-being and mental health. Evidence shows older adults with more weak ties are more likely to experience more positive emotions, less likely to become depressed, and more likely to form new close ties in the future. Another study found that weak ties may help to prevent cognitive decline in older adults.

A similar study of college students found that students felt happier, less lonely, and experienced a sense of belonging on days they interacted more frequently with weak ties.

And a more recent study conducted by researchers at Stanford, MIT, and Harvard — the largest experimental study to date on weak ties — found that weaker social connections on digital job sites have a more positive effect on advancing their careers. Researchers used LinkedIn’s “People You May Know” algorithm to conduct experiments with 20 million people around the world. Their experiments found that exposure to moderately weak ties increased job mobility the most while exposure to the strongest ties increased job mobility the least.

When considering social connections in research, many factors are likely at play. For example, people with more weak ties could simply be more outgoing; research has already established that extroversion is associated with happiness.

Still, the evidence is clear: Cultivating weak ties is a surefire way to improve your mood, promote well-being, and maybe even move up the career ladder. So, the next time you head to your favorite coffee shop, strike up a conversation with the barista, or make a point to get to know the cashier at your local grocery store. The data is clear: It’s good for you.

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