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No man is an island

Whether it’s family and friends, work colleagues, neighbours, mentors, the man queuing in front of you, your child’s friend coming for a sleepover, or the lady behind the till - we need people around us. We are relational beings. It has been our operating system for millions of years. A reality much older that the reality we get on TV. There is not much of an ‘I’ worth talking about without the social constellation it is part of and is defined by.

The positive psychology literature asserts that one of the biggest effects on our own happiness are our social connections. Social relationships, both strong and deep, as well as the fleeting and temporary are necessary for happiness. You just can’t find happy people that don’t have them. Check this for example:

In 1938, during the great depression, one of the longest-running studies of adult life began by tracking the health of 268 Harvard students (all men, as the college intake at that time was still exclusively male). The research attempted to reveal any clues as to what may lead to a healthy and happy life.

Over the following decades, the control group expanded to include a cohort from much less privileged backgrounds: children from Boston’s lower-income neighbourhoods and, as those individuals grew to adulthood and old age, their wives, and offspring. And so, for the last 70 years, the study has been tracking the group’s physical and mental health with a set of repeated examinations and questionnaires that were conducted once every two years.

Life being what it is, some participants went on to become successful businessmen, bricklayers, doctors, factory workers, and lawyers (there was even one American president amongst them), whilst others ended up as schizophrenics or alcoholics, but none of their paths was on inevitable tracks. What has been revealed is not only that long-term social connections are a major predictor of mental health, but also of physiological health, and longevity.

A lifetime study of these men and women revealed that close relationships, more than money or fame, are what keep people happy throughout their lives. Those ties protect people from life’s discontent, help to delay mental and physical decline, and are better predictors of long and happy lives than social class, IQ, or even genes. That finding proved true across the board among both the Harvard men and the inner-city participants.

And it is not only the long-lasting relationships that count. In a 2014 study titled ‘better not alone’, professor of behavioural science Nick Epley showed that simple fleeting connections with strangers can be a very powerful way to increase one’s well-being, but here it gets tricky.

The research also demonstrated that shyness could stand in the way of talking to strangers. It appears that both introverts and extroverts prefer to not engage in random conversations. We have an inherent misconception about what makes us happy, and we systematically don’t do the things that make us the happiest. We wright-off potential for engagement in advance, predicting rejection instinctively.

When we do give it a go, the data suggests that we are probably going to feel better than we expect. It turns out that by talking to strangers we rely on our immediate perceptions and by doing so we overcome our tendency to think in categories, and this stuff liberates us. We enjoy getting out of the mental boxes we constructed in the first place. We find comfort in fleeting intimacy. And when we dare to show a little vulnerability, well, we feel it is easier to open up and talk about ourselves to strangers rather than friends or family. There is a sense of security in sharing your story with a person unbiased by shared history.

So, call a friend, text your mum, book an acupuncture session, play rummy with the old boys and Lego with the young ones, flatter strangers’ pets and babies, winge about the weather to your fellow commuters, and complement a wacky hairdo and outrageous makeup. It’s scientific. All of it will help you to enjoy the meanwhile.





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