COVID-19 has had disastrous effects on our collective wellbeing. Beyond the illness and death, the social isolation meant to keep us safe has taken a serious toll on mental health. Humans are inherently social creatures who thrive in tribes and whither without them. So if you are craving connection, you are not alone.
These 5 research-based tips cover facts about how social interaction can produce positive emotion (i.e., a happy feeling), which will raise our social wellbeing. While we can’t return to our normal social interactions just yet, these tips will help you make the connection between social interaction and wellbeing, no matter the situation.
Tip #61: Interact for higher happiness
Social interaction is so vital to wellbeing that Dr. Martin Seligman, founder of positive psychology, revamped the field’s foundational theory to add relationships as one of 5 necessary elements for human flourishing.
In Flourish, Seligman quotes a fellow founder to underscore the significance of social interaction. “When asked what, in two words or fewer, positive psychology is about, Christopher Peterson…replied, ‘Other people.’” (p. 20) While we may pursue relationships as a means to many ends, such as career advancement, Seligman stresses that we also seek out social interaction for its own sake—its intrinsic value. This establishes relationships as an element of wellbeing distinct from others.
Back in 2002, Seligman and another prominent positive psychologist, Ed Diener conducted a study to demonstrate just how important social relationships are. Specifically, they found that the most salient characteristics of university students who showed the fewest signs of depression were their strong ties to friends and family and commitment to spending time with them. What’s more, Dierner and his father Robert Biswas-Diener note that happiness and social interaction feed each other. Their research shows that while positive social interactions make people happier, happiness makes people more social. The result? An upward spiral of good feeling.
Tip #62: Socialize 6 hours a day
Social interaction is good for us—that much is clear from the research. Now I wonder, as an introvert married to an extrovert, how much interaction is necessary to get those benefits? And is it the same for everyone?
Gallup, a world leader in wellbeing research, studied subgroups of people with different personality types to answer the question of how much social interaction we actually need. Their international surveys showed that each additional hour of social interaction is beneficial across the board in reducing stress and worry. The optimal amount of social time for thriving wellbeing? Six hours a day. Now, my gut says that can’t be a magic number for everyone, but the point is well made. In this case, more is better.
According to Gallup, it doesn’t matter if the interaction is face-to-face or online. That means they count time on social media and email toward the total. There are certainly benefits to virtual communication, as we well know after a year of social distancing. Yet we simply can’t fulfill all our social needs online. Balancing our digital lives with real human connection is a must.
Tip #63: Mirror positive emotion
That’s not to say that all social interactions are good. The people we interact with (by choice or circumstance) can affect us in myriad ways. According to Tom Rath and Jim Harter, authors of Gallup’s comprehensive international wellbeing report, emotions spread quickly from one person to another. We tend to synchronize our moods with the people around us. So it pays to pay attention to how others’ moods will likely influence us. And definitely steer clear of energy vampires.
Italian neuroscientist Giacomo Rizzolatti attributes this phenomenon to mirror neurons. When you see someone perform an action, your brain fires neurons associated with that action. This imitation facilitates connection, since we tend to like people who are more like us. This phenomenon often happens without our realizing it, but we can use it to our advantage. That is, we can display positive emotions in the hopes that others will mirror. Try smiling at others, perhaps on a dog walk. (With a mask, you’ll have to use your eyes and body language.) Personally, I find that this human connection keeps me smiling long afterward.
Tip #64: Understand introvert energy
As an introvert, I know that some types of social interaction fill me up and others drain me. Luckily, my extrovert husband understands me well. But not all introverts feel that they can truly embrace their natural proclivities. This is a society that favors extroverts. Thanks to Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, introverts may now be more appreciated for their strengths than pitied for their “character flaws.” Cain describes introverts in a way that rings true:
Introverts, in contrast [to extroverts], may have strong social skills and enjoy parties and business meetings, but after a while, wish they were home in their pajamas. They prefer to devote their social energies to close friends, colleagues, and family. [Introverts] listen more than they talk, think before they speak, and often feel as if they express themselves better in writing than in conversation. They tend to dislike conflict. Many have a horror of small talk, but enjoy deep discussions.
My sense is that it’s up to the individual to figure out how much and what type of connection is just right. We just need to listen more attentively to what our minds and bodies are saying about our social energy and adjust accordingly.
Tip #65: Tap into tribal belonging
Evolutionary biologist Edward O. Wilson, premier expert on ants and author of Social Conquest of the Earth, argues that humans are the dominant species on Earth now because we are inherently social. In fact, Wilson professes that being social is the highest form of adaptation—our “helper” genes override self-serving instincts to preserve the survival of species. Thus, the group is the primary unit of natural selection rather than the individual. Even Charles Darwin wrote about how “social instincts” figured into the survival of the fittest, meaning not the strongest, but the most adaptive.
To Wilson, group formation is a fundamental human trait, yet his theory is limited. He simply neglects the emotional component of human connection. (Wilson is an expert in ants, after all.) As an anthropologist—someone who studies what it means to be human in diverse contexts—I know that the drive to identify with or belong to a group is elemental.
For our early ancestors, “tribe” was the primary unit of organization. In contemporary times, common group-identity associations include family, nationality/ethnicity, profession, sports/hobbies, and lifestyle choices, among others. So by all means, associate in groups to tap into your tribal sense of belonging.
Five more tips to come on the benefits of social interaction! But these relate not only to how relationships make us feel, but the influence they can have on our lives. See you then!