How Your Social Life Affects Your Happiness

July 27, 2015

How Your Social Life Affects Your HappinessRecently I was at a birthday party for one of my newest friends, L. She’d invited her sister M, so I talked to the two of them the most over dinner. We talked about everything from literature, to architecture (M is an architect), love, Burning Man, etc. Then L turned to M and said, “Isn’t she great? And she knows it too!” as I broke into a beaming smile.

L clearly picked up on how much I enjoy charming people. On one level, it provides a great self-esteem boost to receive positive feedback on your personality and presentation. On another level, I genuinely love getting to know people, especially how they think and what they’re passionate about. For me, having meaningful conversations with strangers elicits a kind of contact high similar to traveling to a foreign country. But of course, it’s not just random encounters that I value. You need different kinds of relationships to build your life on, and I prize my deeper and older relationships as well.

That is not to say that my social life is so perfectly blended with exciting new friends and unbreakable bonds: I very often feel the strain of trying to stay on the same wavelength as my long-term friends, and I don’t click with every new person (understatement). I also don’t always feel appreciated, which is always a risk when you’ve invested in bonding yourself emotionally to someone else. And is it just me or when you’ve finished with all your work, chores, workouts, and taking care of you and yours, you barely have enough emotional/physical energy left for a social life?

Yet for all that, there are very real–both immediate and long-term–benefits to a healthy social life.

1. Social life in youth determines happiness in late mid-life: According to a 30-year longitudinal study by researchers at the University of Rochester, social life at 20 and at 30 has an impact on your well-being at 50. Specifically, the quantity of your social life at 20, and its quality at 30, contribute to greater reported happiness at 50. It makes intuitive sense: you should be meeting a lot of new people and encountering unfamiliar ideas in early adulthood, and eventually move on to building more solid networks and close groups. For instance, the quantity of social life at 30 had no measurable impact on well-being at 50.

2. Loneliness can shorten your life: Loneliness (defined as having few social interactions) has an effect on mortality equal to a heavy smoking habit–and greater effect than excessive alcohol consumption or obesity.

3. Abundant social life can make you feel like a million bucks: That “I live richly” feeling is actually quantifiable, it turns out. According to Dan Buettner (author, TED talk-er), joining a group that meets just once a month has the same effect on your happiness as doubling your income. Writer Eric Barker puts the value of a great social life at an additional income of precisely $131, 232 a year.

While I’m raising my eyebrows to the hairline at the specificity of the figure (I guess this must be true for people who currently make $131, 232?), it is absolutely true (scientifically and otherwise) that we tend to greatly overestimate the happiness boost from additional income, and underestimate the boost from a meaningful, enriching social life.

Most of us think we’ll be happier if we make $100k more a year (unless that figure is meaningless to you, billionaire dumpling). But how often do we think we’ll be happier if we spent few more hours every week talking to strangers or catching up with old friends? And yet my highlights from these past few weeks were exactly those things. To reap the benefits of a fulfilling social life:

Stay open-minded about meeting new people. Rather than knocking them off because of perceived differences, just talk to them. You may not make a real connection, but you also might.

“I don’t need any more friends because I already have enough”–this is a tempting thought when you’re busy and past a certain age, and everyone is already paired up and settling down. But adult friendships are still worth pursuing.

Place value on authenticity. Since you don’t see your friends every day, and many new connections might be intense yet fleeting, it might be a struggle to see the value in keeping up. For me, I’ve felt the most satisfaction from emphasizing authenticity over frequency or even depth of interaction. I’ve had conversations I’ll remember for the rest of my life with strangers I’ll never see again. I’ve had really great catch-up sessions with friends I haven’t seen in person in years. That to me is much more valuable than seeing someone more frequently and never getting to truly open up to that person. The key is whether you were both honest and open about yourselves and shared a genuine, positive experience.

Your turn–what kind of social interaction gives you the most boost? 

More on friendship and well-being: Exercise for Opening Yourself to Soul-Fulfilling Friendships

On Making Adult Friendships Work

On Breaking Up with Friends

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Photo: Mariano di Silvano via Instagram

Juhea is the founder and editor of Peaceful Dumpling and the author of bestselling novel Beasts of a Little Land. Follow Juhea on Instagram @peacefuldumpling, @juhea_writes and Pinterest.


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