How to maximize your social health by diversifying your interactions
Consider two people and how they spend their day:
Person 1: Interacts with three close friends.
Person 2: Interacts with one close friend, one family member, and one coworker.
Which person do you think is happier at the end of the day (if all other factors are constant)?
Researchers have found that, most likely, it’s person #2.
Today we’re going to dive into why…
IN TODAY’S ARTICLE:
✔️ How we often misunderstand loneliness
✔️ Why one close friend can’t fill your social cup
✔️ The magic of the “neighborly nod”
✔️ The role of communities in social health
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HOW WE OFTEN MISUNDERSTAND LONELINESS
It’s a problem that, if you’re reading this newsletter, you probably care about solving. But too often, we rush into solutions based on false assumptions.
Assumptions like: “More connections = Better social health”.
For example, many of us (myself included) fell in love with the idea that social media could help us connect with more people. But we didn’t yet understand how social media would change our habits and culture, and the deeper connections that social media would replace.
Then there’s the other common assumption: “Deeper connections = Better social health”.
To reduce your loneliness, you need to have deep relationships, right?
It turns out this assumption isn’t totally accurate either. Deep relationships are critical, but they aren’t necessarily enough…
WHY ONE CLOSE FRIEND CAN’T FILL YOUR CUP
In a study titled, “Relational Diversity in Social Portfolios Predicts Well-Being”1, researchers set out to answer a big question:
“[Which] set of interactions—with which types of relationship partners (e.g., family members, close friends, acquaintances, strangers), and how many interactions with each type—is most predictive of well-being?”
Over the course of four separate studies, they assessed the social interactions and happiness of over 50,000 people. Their day was analyzed and broken down based on the different types of interactions they had:
Here’s what they found:
✅ Yes, the total amount of social interaction someone experiences throughout the day leads to higher well-being.
☝️ But the relationship between social interactions and well-being was even stronger when there was more diversity in the types of relationships that members interacted with.
👨👩👧👦 Relational diversity was a strong predictor of well-being across many different demographics including “gender, age, number of children under 18 years old, number of people in the household, employment status, and annual income”.
Simply put, regardless of who you are, “interacting with a more diverse set of relationship types predicts higher well-being.”
This research totally changed the way I think about loneliness and human connection.
THE MAGIC OF THE “NEIGHBORLY NOD”
I was getting into my car and my neighbor walked up to me. His wife just bought a new Subaru and, seeing as how I’m a fellow Subie owner, he had some questions.
“Does your car beep when you’re backing up?”
“Yup”, I said. “Super helpful.”
“Hm. Ours doesn’t do that.”
“Maybe it’s a setting you can turn on and off?”, I suggested, uselessly. I know nothing about cars.
“I looked! Couldn’t find anything…”, he replied.
“Have you looked at the manual?”
And so we went, back and forth for several minutes, me providing no actual value. He snuck in a joke about how long his grass was getting and I went on my way.
And as I drove off, I couldn’t help but smile. These tiny, neighborly interactions always brighten my mood. Even something as simple as a smile and a neighborly nod feels great.
Research explains that these kinds of interactions are critical for our well-being and are more powerful than we think.
In one laboratory experiment, researchers randomly assigned participants to interact with strangers, and others to interact with their romantic partner and found that there was no difference in their levels of happiness after the interaction.2
In another study, researchers found that when faced with a highly stressful situation, people are actually more likely to turn to strangers and weak ties than they are to their strong ties and intimate relationships:3
“Rather than consistently rely on their “strong ties,” people often take pains to avoid close friends and family, because these are too fraught with complex expectations. People often confide in “weak ties,” as their fear that their trust could be misplaced is overcome by their need for one who understands. In fact, people may find themselves confiding in acquaintances and even strangers unexpectedly, without much reflection on the consequences.”
We need both deep and shallow interactions in our life, with both weak and strong ties. In three out of four of the data sets researched in the relational diversity study, social portfolio diversity was a stronger predictor of subjective well-being than being married. It’s having a range of interactions that makes us happy.
HOW TO IMPROVE YOUR SOCIAL DIVERSITY
Ever since reading this research, I’ve changed how I show up in the world.
I was definitely the guy who smiled at people on the street and chatted up the barista before. Ten years in the Bay Area will do that to a guy.
But now I have the knowledge that these aren’t just kind things to do, they’re actually good for me.
I’ve found myself smiling at more people, having more spontaneous conversations, and looking at every interaction as valuable, no matter how small.
If you’re the data-driven type, here’s a one-month experiment you can run to diversify your “portfolio of interactions”:
At the end of every day, write down what % of your day was spent interacting with each type of connection: family members, close friends, acquaintances, strangers, time spent alone. Rough estimates are okay. Then, for each day, choose a 1-10 rating for how satisfied you feel with your social health for the day.
Identify areas of your social portfolio that are lacking.
For example, if you find that you usually interact with close friends 5% of the time during the work week, you might make a commitment to call one friend every other day would balance your portfolio.
Or if you find that you rarely talk to acquaintances, commit to taking a walk for lunch every day to cross paths with more neighbors or coworkers.
At the end of the month, review your ratings and see if diversifying your portfolio of interactions had an impact on your social health, and which distribution feels best for you.
HOW COMMUNITIES PLAY A ROLE IN RELATIONAL DIVERSITY
I’ve heard many community builders talk about building deeper relationships as a goal of their community. Some go as far as to say that for a community to be truly healthy, it requires members to form deep relationships.
This research relieves the pressure a bit.
Our communities can be wellsprings of weak ties and neighborly nods. They can provide members with a space to turn when they don’t feel comfortable talking to their friends and family. They can be a place for members to find the more passive interactions that they need to diversify their social portfolio on any given day.
Sure, members may find deeper relationships through your community. That’s a great outcome and probably means you’re doing something right. But it’s not a requirement for your community to be effective at reducing loneliness and increasing social health.
In some circumstances, overfocusing on pushing deep relationships may be detrimental to members who are relying on your community to provide them with more passive interactions.
Communities alone won’t solve loneliness but they play an important role. Get clear about what role you want your community to play.
Collins, H. K., Hagerty, S. F., Quoidbach, J., Norton, M. I., & Brooks, A. W. (2022). Relational diversity in social portfolios predicts well-being. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 119(43), e2120668119. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2120668119
Dunn, E. W., Biesanz, J. C., Human, L. J., & Finn, S. (2007). Misunderstanding the affective consequences of everyday social interactions: The hidden benefits of putting one's best face forward. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92(6), 990–1005. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3518.104.22.1680
Small, Mario Luis, Someone To Talk To (New York, 2017; online edn, Oxford Academic, 19 Oct. 2017), https://doi.org/10.1093/oso/9780190661427.001.0001, accessed 17 Oct. 2023.
🍭 Brain Candy
Some goodies to get your community gears turning…
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📈 Throwback thread on how to build a paid community to 1,000+ members.
❤️ Some hard truths about soft skills.
👩⚖️ Discord is experimenting with reforming the behavior of banned members.
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That’s all for this week…
I’ve been spending a lot of time out in nature. The trees are all turning. It’s my favorite time of the year.
Until next time!