We all want the keys to happiness. One of the biggest keys is our social life, but how exactly does it contribute to improving our life satisfaction?
It’s not enough to simply own the key — we need to find the appropriate lock for it, and our social relationships are composed of many important variables: conversations, social touch, emotional expressions, shared experiences; the list goes on.
If we could work out the contributions of each input, and the ways in which it impacts our happiness, it may inspire some extra effort geared toward optimizing the social interactions in our own lives.
Science Shows That Social Activity Can Increase Our Happiness
When we ask the right questions, scientific experiments are great at collecting evidence and revealing answers. But there is an important challenge in testing how social interactions impact our happiness: in a lab, people often act a little strangely because labs are not natural environments.
It’s difficult to physically interact with people as you normally would if you’re being watched by a researcher, or if you’re lying in a brain scanner. So, to get reliable and practical answers, we need to look to technology that can measure what we do in the real world.
Have you watched the TV series The Wire? Well, it shows that people were already using this technology a long time ago. However, instead of eavesdropping on criminal suspects without their knowledge as in the series, we can hook up willing participants with unobtrusive audio recorders as they go about their normal lives.
Then, we can track the frequency and quality of their conversations. Although participants may adjust their behavior when they remember that they are being tracked for a science experiment, their normal living environment has to be more natural than sitting around in a lab.
In 2018, a group of US researchers combined the data from four separate studies that all used an audio recorder to analyze people’s daily conversations. For a total of 3–4 days, the device in each study automatically recorded audio for 30–50 seconds, approximately every 10 minutes, as the participants continued with their daily activities. The participants wore the device from the time they woke up to the time they went to bed, and couldn’t tell exactly when it was recording.
The researchers wanted a reliable insight into how the quality and frequency of conversations would influence participants’ life satisfaction. Each of the four studies used a different group of participants in order to cover a range of personal backgrounds: the first study used 79 undergraduate students, the second used 50–51 breast cancer patients and their partners, the third used 184 healthy adults who signed up for a meditation trial, and the fourth used 122 adults who were recently divorced. In comparison to typical psychology studies, that’s a very diverse sample.
In addition to the audio recordings, all participants completed a questionnaire that measured their personalities and life satisfaction levels. After the experiment, the researchers listened to all of the conversations picked up by the recordings and defined each conversation as either small talk (e.g. “What are you up to?”) or meaningful discussion (e.g. “They have already raised 10 million dollars for Haiti”).
Overall, when pooling the data across the studies, the researchers found that life satisfaction decreased as more time was spent alone and increased as people spent more time talking to others.
You may think that this effect would depend on personality traits such as our level of extraversion, but in fact, personality made practically no difference to the strength of the association overall.
Social activity was globally favorable for happiness, which suggests that we should motivate ourselves to meet people regularly and attend social events.
Does Small Talk Count, Too?
Social interaction is certainly important where happiness is concerned, but how about the quality of our conversations?
The data from the studies showed that the frequency of small talk had no significant impact on life satisfaction. So if you’ve ever met someone who frowns upon small talk as a waste of time, they may be right if they mean that small talk makes no difference to their long-term happiness.
But, of course, that’s no excuse to be impolite when meeting strangers. Short-term happiness matters too.
Unlike small talk, meaningful conversations had a positive impact on life satisfaction overall in the studies. And once again, personality had only a negligible impact on the strength of this association. The more frequently we engage in deep and purposeful discussions with other people, the happier we feel about our lives.
All in all, frequent social activity and meaningful conversations are a great way to take care of our mental health. Small talk has no substantial cost or benefit on our life satisfaction, but we probably never expected it to. We generally use small talk as a gateway into more substantial conversations, or simply to be polite when we meet friendly people in cafes and bars. When we are pleasant to be around, the people around us are more pleasant in return.
Even for the introverts among us — and I include myself here — coming up with excuses to avoid meeting people is probably not a great idea for our long-term happiness.
Thinking back on my own past experiences, social occasions have rarely ended in regret, even when I was initially resistant to leave the comfort of my home.
That’s not to say that we can’t enjoy our own company and appreciate our quiet moments with a book or movie. We absolutely should create space for those activities and meditate on the pleasures of pure mindful awareness. But it’s equally important to engage with others when the opportunities arise.
Conversation is the only tool we have for building a bridge between us and them. We long for social connection, and it’s no surprise that a lack of human interaction harms our satisfaction with life. Other people provide us with support, warmth, and intellectual stimulation.
Our online interactions are helpful for connecting with larger groups of people and providing a way to reach distant friends and relatives. But they do not fully replace the benefits of face-to-face communication with the people standing next to us.
To stay on top of our mental health, we need to schedule regular opportunities for grabbing a coffee with loved ones and meeting ones to be loved.
Each opportunity allows us to craft our words into patterns that make our conversational partner smile, laugh, and think. And with some luck, they will do the same for us.