Thursday, January 26, 2017

Happiness Is Interacting With Others

It is no surprise that social interactions can be a great source of happiness.  A wonderful holiday spent with close friends and family is not only enjoyable in the moment, it is also a source of wonderful memories for years to come.  Being in a great romantic relationship is uplifting. 
But, what about the large number of other interactions you have each day?  The cashier at the supermarket who smiles and tells you to have a great day.  The colleague you pass in the hall who nods as you walk by.  The friend of a friend you chat with for a minute about a recent TV show.  Do those interactions also make you happier?
In the 1970’s, sociologist Mark Granovetter has looked at the structure of people’s social networks.  This work suggests that you can loosely characterize people’s contacts into strong ties and weak ties.  Strong ties are the bonds among family, friends, and close work colleagues.  Weak ties are involve the people you see on occasion.  You do not have particularly deep or regular contact with your weak ties.
Research in business suggests that weak ties are extremely important for passing information across groups.  For example, a company may have lots of pockets of people who work closely together.  The members of this group share information extensively.  That information can only flow from one group to another through weak ties where one member of the group shares it with someone who is primarily connected to a different group within the company.
What about happiness?  Can weak ties contribute to your happiness?
This question was explored in a paper by Gillian Sandstrom and Elizabeth Dunn in the July, 2014 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 
In one study, 53 adults over the age of 25 were given two clickers.  On 6 different days, participants counted the number of people they interacted with that day using the clickers.  They used one clicker for people with whom they had a close relationship (strong ties) and the other for people with whom they had a more distant relationship (weak ties).  On each day, participants also rated their well-being and their sense of belonging to a community.  Participants also filled out a personality inventory, because basic personality characteristics are also related to people’s well-being.  All of the analyses were done ensuring that the results could not just be predicted from the basic personality characteristics. 
On average, people interacted with 6.7 strong ties and 11.4 weak ties in a day.  One way you might think to analyze these data is to see whether the number of interactions predicts happiness overall.  Interestingly, differences in happiness between people are not that strongly predicted by the overall number of interactions they have.
However, the number of interactions people have does predict day-to-day differences in sense of belonging and happiness.  Strong ties are particularly important.  On days when people interact many times their strong ties, they report that they are happier and feel more like they belong to the community than when they interact fewer times with their strong ties.  In this sample, interactions with weak ties predicted people’s sense of belongingness, but only weakly predicted happiness.  That is, more interactions with acquaintances increased people’s sense that they belonged to a community, but had only a weak relationship to their overall happiness.
A second study with the same method examined 58 first-year college students.  They also kept track of their interactions using clickers.  You might expect the results with this group to be stronger, because first-year college students are just starting to form a new set of relationships.
In this study, the number of interactions with both strong and weak ties was related to the students’ sense of belongingness overall.  So, those students who interacted with a lot of people were happier and felt a greater sense that they belonged to the college community than those who interacted with only few people.
In addition, on days when people interacted with both their close friends and their acquaintances, they were happier than on days when they interacted less often with their close friends and their acquaintances. 
What does all of this mean?
The interactions we have with other people affect the way we feel about life.  Our close relationships keep us grounded and influence both happiness and the sense that we are part of a larger community.  Interestingly, even our interactions with people we do not know that well give us a sense that we are part of that larger community.  When we are first introduced to that community, those interactions and that feeling of belonging also increase our happiness.
So, smile at people when you walk down the street.  You just might be helping to make someone’s day.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

When You’re Sure of Your Beliefs, You Want to Convince Others

When people disagree on a topic, there are several ways they might deal with that disagreement.  They might avoid it altogether, either by pushing off a discussion or just agreeing with the other person in order to end the conversation.  On the other hand, people can also be active in resolving disagreements. 
In that case, people have the choice between being competitive or cooperative.  Competitive resolution means that people are trying to convince the other person to change their belief.  Cooperative resolution means that people are seeking some kind of middle ground.
There are many factors that can lead people to take a cooperative or a competitive stance when trying to deal with a disagreement.  For example, the personality characteristic of openness reflects how willing people are to consider new ideas.  People high in openness are more likely to be cooperative than those low in openness.  The characteristic of agreeableness reflects how much people want to get along with others.  Agreeable people are also more likely to seek a compromise than disagreeable people.
An interesting paper by Kimberly Rios, Kenneth DeMarree, and Johnathan Statzer in the July 2014 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin examined the way people’s certainty about their beliefs affects their tendency to be cooperative or competitive. 
People’s certainty about their beliefs can be broken down into two components:  clarity and correctness.  Clarity refers to whether people are sure about what they believe.  Each of us has some beliefs that we hold deeply and other issues on which we are not that clear about exactly what we believe.  Correctness focuses on whether we think our belief is “correct” in some broader cultural or moral context. 
The authors suggest that the more strongly people believe their attitude is correct, the more competitive they will be in discussions.  In contrast, the authors did not assume that clarity would be strongly related to competitiveness.
In one study, participants read about a proposed tax on junk foods that would be used to defray expenses for medical care for people who eat unhealthy foods.  Participants read about the issue, and then used a scale to rate both how clear they were about their own attitude as well as whether they believed that their attitude was the ‘right’ one to have. 
After that, participants were led to believe that they would be engaging in a discussion with another person who had the opposing view.  They were given the opportunity to select messages that would be sent to the other person before the discussion.  Some of these sentences suggested competition (“I plan on winning this debate.”).  Some suggested cooperation (“I hope that you will also want to find some common ground on this issue.”).  Still others reflected a desire to learn about the conversation partner’s beliefs (“I’m curious to learn about your position in this debate.”) 
In this study, the more strongly that people believed that their attitude was correct, the more likely they were to select competitive sentences to introduce themselves to their partner.  Being clear about the attitude did not have a strong influence on people’s sentence selections.  
Other studies in this paper manipulated correctness and clarity experimentally.  To manipulate correctness, people were shown a story suggesting that most other people agree with their attitude (leading to high correctness) or that most other people disagree (leading to low correctness).  To increase clarity, people were given opportunities to repeat their belief, which makes it easier for people to state what they believe.
In these studies, manipulations of correctness made people more likely to adopt a competitive stance in discussions.  Manipulations of clarity did not have a strong influence on the way people approached discussions. 
Putting this together, then, being certain of your attitude can affect whether you try to convince other people that you are right.  In particular, the more strongly you believe that your attitude is the right attitude to have, the more that you will focus on convincing others. 
That also means that if you find yourself in conflict with others on a regular basis, you might want to see whether you generally assume that your attitudes are the correct ones.  If so, you might consider taking other people’s perspectives in order to see whether there is validity to opposing points of view.  That may reduce your tendency to treat discussions as invitations for coercion.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Lower Your Stress By Thinking About the Distant Future

Stress is one of the biggest complaints people have about their lives.  People worry about money, work, and family.  They are also dragged down by events that have happened in the recent past.  A bad test grade can throw a student into a funk.  A fight with a partner in the morning can affect the rest of the day.  A missed sale at work can ruin a weekend.
How can people become more resilient to these negative events in life?
This question was explore in a paper in the February, 2015 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by Emma Bruehlman-Senecal and Ozlem Ayduk. 
They focused on people’s ability to travel mentally through time.  They suggest that thinking about the distant future can help people get beyond recent events that are causing stress.  In particular, this longer time-perspective helps people to recognize that most events in life are not that important. As a result, while they may be stressful in the short-term, they will not have long-term consequences.  Recognizing that events have their impact mostly in the short-term can make even their short-term impact less severe.
In one study, participants were all people who had a significant event in the previous two weeks that they found to be very stressful.  Some participants were told to think about their life the following week and to focus either on their feelings or the implications of the stressful event.  Other participants were told to think about their life the next year and to focus on the implications of the event.  A control group got no instructions.  Afterward, participants filled out a questionnaire about their current mood as well as questionnaires that assessed their feelings about the permanence of the event they experienced.
Participants who focused on their life a year after the event experienced less stress and negative feeling than those who focused on their life the next week or those in the control group.  Focusing on the distant future also led people to think that the event would have a less permanent impact on their lives than thinking about the near future.
The researchers ruled out a number of possible counterexplanations for this result  For example, they did a version of the study in which all participants were told that thinking the future (either the near or distant future depending on the condition they were in) has been shown to make people feel better about stressful events.  Even with these instructions, participants who thought about the distant future felt better and felt that the event was less permanent than those people who thought about the near future. 
Some of the studies looked at students who had just taken a midterm exam.  Students who did poorly on the exam felt better if they thought about the distant future than if they thought about the near future.  But, students who did well on the exam felt equally good regardless of whether they thought about the near future or the distant future. 
In this study, the researchers also looked at the students’ final exam grades.  You might think that reducing students’ stress by having them focus on the distant future might make them feel better in the short term, but not learn from their mistakes.  So, they might actually do more poorly on the final exam if they thought about the distant future.  In fact, students who did poorly on the midterm did equally well on the final exam regardless of the instructions they were given in the study, suggesting that thinking about the future reduced stress, but did not influence motivation to do well in the class.
Ultimately, these results suggest that thinking about the future helps to give you perspective on the negative events in your life.  When something goes wrong, it is tempting to obsess over the details of what went wrong.  High levels of stress are not helpful for getting work done in the future, though.  So, it can be valuable to recognize that most of the events of your life—even ones that seem incredibly important at the time—do not have a life-changing impact.