By Rachel Welch
Have you taken a moment to ask yourself where your happiness comes from? Perhaps you find joy and fulfillment through a hobby, career, or morning routine. For some, happiness is found through time spent with others. During the pandemic of COVID-19, the world was presented with a new awareness of what life is like when isolation is the only option. For the first time, many people were faced with time alone versus time spent with their typical social circles, family, and friends. This yielded some interesting discoveries which provided clarity to the question, does the quantity of social interactions affect happiness?
Society’s Hunger for Social Interaction
Humans are social creatures. This phenomenon has been studied through the decades, and even led to some claiming that our need for social interaction is in fact what makes us human. This theory suggests that our need for social interaction and relationships is one of the main factors which distinguishes us from other species, and what makes us “human.” This has been so widely accepted, that it has become ingrained in multiple levels of societies worldwide, in ways that are both beneficial, and in some cases, damaging.
Social interaction is a fundamental part of many groups worldwide, regardless of religion, race, or nationality. Humans everywhere seem to crave and rely on social interaction. It is a necessity for us to feel and act normally. Furthermore, certain cultures may absorb socialization into their identity more than others. For instance, American culture is relatively independent with a main focus on themselves, and a secondary reliance on peers, family, and friends. Some groups of people, like Americans, highly value social relationships, but those relationships may not “define” their individual identity.
One team of researchers explored this subject. Through the use of a “false feedback” experiment, the researchers studied a group of Asian Americans, African Americans, and European Americans and provided them with false feedback on how they were perceived. The goal was to compare if members of each group were happier when others’ opinion of them individually/personally was accurate, versus the others’ opinion of them collectively (as a race, group, etc.). They found that European and African Americans placed a higher value on the personal opinion, versus the collective. For instance, participant “Bob” cared more that he was properly perceived as an individual, versus as a member of a group. Asian Americans, however, scored as being happier when their “collective self” was accurately perceived. So, participant Anne may have felt more comfort knowing that she (as part of her group identity) was properly perceived. Essentially, these cultures demonstrated differences in how strongly they value and identify with their social identity (1).
Social Interaction as a Reward
Many lessons about social interaction are taught from a young age. In American society, many schools use social time, playtime, and “free” time as a reward. This teaches us from a young age that social time is a good and positive thing, something that was motivating. Even in adulthood, many people operate on a similar structure. “I can go meet my friends for dinner once I’ve finished my work day,” and “I can socialize at the water cooler after I’ve sent this email.” Social interaction is a stimulating, rewarding, and overall positive thing!
Some studies have confirmed that the act of socializing with another actually changes what is happening in the brain. Certain sociological and psychological observations have confirmed that when a person is engaging socially with another, they will engage in one or more of the following:
Similar studies have gone to show that the type of social interaction may also change what happens on a neurological level. For instance, a hyper-scanning fNIRS study showed that neural synchrony occurred when two people were interacting face-to-face, but not during interactions where they could not see the face of one another. This suggests that even later in life, the ability to look at someone in-person may impact the levels of social benefit. Furthermore, higher levels of synchrony seem to also lead to other benefits. Researchers studied gamma activity, which was recorded from temporal-parietal areas of the brain. They found that social connectedness, social appraisal, and even emotional regulation seem to be stronger for those who engaged in more social interaction (2). This is a remarkable observation, because it further enforces that social interaction is important for strong and well-adjusted social ability.
Other Social Studies of Interest
One item which surprised me, is that a primary driver of many social interaction studies has also been the topic of aggression. This might be due to the fact that aggression is a common marker of social differences in animal species, but uniquely is studied as a part of human social behavior.
Research on aggression has led to neuroscience being used as a treatment for deviant social behavior. While aggression may not be a fundamental part of many social disorders, its research has led us to discover things like serotonin reuptake inhibitors. These are otherwise known as SSRI’s, which are commonly used to treat anxiety and depression. This research has also led to further knowledge on the impact of oxytocin. As we mentioned above, this “love hormone” is an important bonding agent between parents and their offspring. Apparently, it is also important in the social behavior of protection in social groups, and even has the ability to increase fondness of others, as shown in some human trials (3).
Does the Amount of Social Interaction Affect Our Happiness?
It is clear from the science, and likely our own personal experiences, that yes, social interaction does affect happiness. Humans are social creatures, as are many other species, and we in particular, require a certain level and kind of social interaction to develop normally and live happily.
Studies show that when people feel lonely, they have higher levels of stress hormones like cortisol. This can raise the risk of health issues, and contribute to chronic stress. It seems that social interaction and connection are not only valuable to our mental health, but to our physical health as well (5).
Consider the extreme concept of solitary confinement. This is a common practice for prisoners who have “misbehaved” while in prison. Usually a punishment reserved for the most deviant, solitary confinement involves isolating an individual to a silent and often dark room, completely alone. This differs from typical confinement, where prisoners may hear each other, see guards pass by, and have the chance to interact with one another. The same isolating tactic may also be used for patients in mental health facilities, and in some cases, children.
While solitary confinement is far from a happy situation, it is interesting that our society has chosen this level of isolation to be one of the most offensive forms of punishment that a person can endure. This practice dates back to the early 1800’s, and (many believe) may need to be thrown out along with other methods of punishment that were popular in that day and age. Dr. J. Wesley Boyd is one individual who very much advocates for the removal of this as a common practice. He argues that the practice of solitary confinement is in fact, unethical and torturous, and needs to be stopped. Through his studies, he found that
“The psychological effects of isolation last long after individuals are removed from isolation. Indeed, years after their release, many who experienced solitary confinement in Pelican Bay had difficulty integrating into society, felt emotionally numb, experienced anxiety and depression, and preferred to remain in confined spaces.” (4)
This goes to show that the lack of healthy social interaction is very likely to cause lasting damage. So, how does this impact those of us who lead relatively normal lives? If we are not prone to punishment by means of isolation (which I hope you are not!) can our happiness still be affected by social interaction or the lack thereof?
Super Social Interaction
Obviously, the nature and type of social interaction will impact how we feel when leaving a social situation. If a social interaction is positive, it will lead to a more positive bond and benefit. This kind of positive social interaction is one that we, as social humans, thrive on.
Social interaction is fundamental, from the day we are born, to our elderly years, and numerous studies have confirmed the benefits to elderly individuals. Those that maintain strong relationships with family, friends, peers, or even a pet, tend to be healthier, happier, and live longer (6).
Social Interaction, in Summation
Social interaction has a super ability to affect our happiness. From a chemical level at birth, to impacting how our brains and bodies behave in each encounter, social interaction is a powerful influence on our lives and overall well being. I’m sure you are thankful, as I am, that we are returning to a point in society where social interaction is more possible than it was during the pandemic in 2020. Hopefully, you are making great use of the regained freedom to socialize, by feeding your brain and body’s need for social relationships!
If you are seeking new ways to feed your body and brain’s social cravings, consider engaging in activities that are also healthy in other ways! Taking a walk with a friend to soak up some vitamin D and boost your mood! Visit a dog park, museum, or dine at a restaurant with others. There are many small ways to get some valuable social exposure. Even if you are more introverted, studies show us that even a small dose of social time can make a big impact!
So, I hereby encourage you to go forth, be social, and reap the happy and healthy benefits!