Do social relationships make you happy?

“Thousands of candles can be lighted from a single candle, and the life of the candle will not be shortened. Happiness never decreases by being shared.”- Buddha

“L’enfer, c’est les autres” (”Hell is other people”)- Jean-Paul Sartre

What’s your favourite sitcom? Mine has to be Friends, slightly nipping Cheers to the post. Friends is quite an interesting phenomenon; millions of people sit, captivated by a flashing box as they watch the unfolding friendships of fictional people. This is happening instead, perhaps, of the unfolding of their own relationships. Aside from it being hilarious, the great appeal of Friends is that it’s based around a topic we can all relate to – our need and desire for friendship, which is rooted deep in our psychology; it’s part of our nature.

But as time’s gone by, it seems that modern life has gradually reduced the need for other people. A lot about modern life seems to directly compete with building close relationships with others. We have our own TVs, so we don’t rely on each other as much for entertainment. Machines let one person do the job of twenty. There’s even these virtual worlds springing up online; create your own character, log in, and interact with other people who also created their own characters.

You could potentially live in the midst of millions of people without ever seeing another person. Hole yourself up somewhere, do all your shopping online and have it delivered to your doorstep. You might have to see people sometimes, such as if you got sick, but the point is, it’s possible to cut human contact down to a minimum and still survive – all the while, life bustles on around you.

Freedom of choice and technology make this possible. But is it a good idea? People do vary in how much time they like to spend with other people, that much is true. But is there anyone who can be completely alone and get by? If you deprive your body of a basic biological need like food or warmth, there are consequences. Is the same true of a basic psychological need, like relating to others?

Of course it is. Society knows this. If you offend against society, you’re taken to prison, away from the other people. In prison, the worse behaving prisoners are sent to solitary, and denied contact even with the other inmates.

Outside of imprisonment, one of the worst deterrents to certain behaviours is the threat of public branding; you keep your freedom, but lose the acceptance of others. We do a lot to be accepted, and taking away our social ties is not a pleasant experience.

On the other hand, adding to our social ties is a pleasant experience. If you’re not convinced, here are some facts and figures.

One survey found that of people who report they are ‘very happy’, 38% had more than five close friends, whereas 26% had fewer than five. In another study, students who were materialistic, looking for success and money over close friendships were twice as likely to report that they were ‘fairly unhappy’ or ‘very unhappy’ than their less materialistic peers. People with more relationships cope better with bad situations such as bereavement, losing their jobs, or falling ill. The benefits are also physical; people who have more social ties, through friends, family, work, religious groups or other memberships, are more resistant to illness and have longer life spans than those who have fewer relationships. At times when these ties break, such as divorce or losing a job, the immune system weakens for a time.

The conclusion is quite obvious. People: good. No people: bad. As much as modern life encourages less interaction between people, it has failed to replicate its benefits. Having friends around keeps you happier, healthier and more resilient.  It might be worth keeping this in mind, when you’re about to watch that Friends repeat for the 47th time!

Refs:

For a review see: Myers, D. G. (2000). Funds, Friends and Faith of Happy People. American Psychologist. 55(1), 56-67.

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