Does the Quantity of Social Interactions Affect Happiness?
Being around other people can make you happy.
Posted October 1, 2018
Human beings are a social species. Connecting with others is crucial, because that is how we learn about how the world works. That is how we accomplish tasks that require more effort than a single person could put in.
Because of the importance of our social interactions, it would make sense that engagement with others would generally be satisfying and enjoyable for people. But, what kinds of interactions would make people happy? Is it enough just to be around others and to have casual conversations? Or is it important to be engaged in deep and meaningful conversations?
A prominent study by Matthias Mehl, Simine Vazire, Shannon Holleran, and Shelby Clark in 2010 suggested that the quality of interactions matters. They had college undergraduates walk around with a device that would randomly record the audio environment over the course of a three-day period. After the undergrads removed any content they didn’t want other people to hear, the researchers analyzed how long each participant was in the presence of other people, and whether they were having casual conversations or were talking about more substantive matters.
They also measured people’s overall level of well-being. They found that engaging in substantive discussions was associated with a greater sense of well-being, but small talk was actually negatively related to well-being. The researchers interpreted this as evidence that the depth of people’s interactions affects their sense of connection to others, which leads to happiness and life satisfaction.
There are limitations to this initial study, of course. For one thing, it is always valuable to replicate interesting findings. For another, college undergraduates are not representative of people in general in a number of ways. They are in a period of their lives in which they are seeking deep connections with others. In addition, they tend to be surrounded by friends rather than family, and so serious conversations for them may reflect the presence of deep friendships. People who interact a lot with family may have more casual conversations that still reinforce the bond among family members.
To test the generality of this initial effect, Matthias Mehl and Simine Vazire, along with several colleagues, repeated this study with a broader group of participants. This work was published in the September 2018 issue of Psychological Science. This analysis (which also used the data from the initial study I described) looked at data from over 450 individuals, including cancer patients and their partners, people who were recently divorced, as well as healthy adults.
The more often that the participants in this study were around other people and having interactions of some kind, the higher their sense of well-being. The negative relationship between small talk and well-being, however, was not observed in this study.
The researchers also took personality measures in this study. You might expect that how much people enjoy being around others might relate to their extraversion. As it turns out, though, the differences among people in extraversion did not change the strength of the relationship between the amount of interaction and life satisfaction.
These results are correlational: They show an association between interaction time and happiness, not that one necessarily causes the other. But putting all of this together, it seems reasonable that spending time around other people is a benefit. Even ordinary interactions may reinforce your bond to other people, which can make you happier and more satisfied with your life.
Mehl, M.R., Vazire, S., Holleran, S.E., & Clark, S. (2010). Eavesdropping on happiness: Well-Being Is Related to Having Less Small Talk and More Substantive Conversations. Psychological Science, 29, 529-531.
Milek, A., Butler, E.A., Tackman, A.M., Kaplan, D.M., Raison, C.L., Sbarra, D.A., Vazire, S., & Mehl, M.R. (2018). "Eavesdropping on happiness" revisited: A pooled, multisample replication of the association between life satisfaction and observed daily conversation quantity and quality, Psychological Science, 29(9), 1451-1462.