Happy people seek out strangers while sad people seek out friends, study finds
- Social psychologists offer many theories for why we behave the way we do, but at heart, most suggest we seek out happiness
- Social interactions are a well-established key factor to happiness
- But new Harvard University research suggests a more complicated relationship between happiness and our social lives
- A study of over 30,000 people found that when we’re sad we seek out friends, but when we’re happy we look for strangers – but it does depress our moods
- It suggests to the researchers that happiness is like a resource we need to replenish but can use for necessary, if unpleasant activities, with surplus
Perhaps counterintuitively, when we are happy, we seek out strangers and new people to interact with, new research suggests.
When we’re feeling glum, on the other hand, we are more likely to find ourselves reaching out to close friends, relatives and companions.
Humans are by nature social creatures, and need interactions and relationships in order to feel fulfilled and for the benefit of our mental health.
But, as the Harvard University study found, we find happiness in different kinds of interactions depending upon how happy we are to begin with.
When we’re feeling blue, we tend to need our friends around to boost our moods, but when we’re happy, our surplus of good feelings fuels our desire (or at least tolerance) for strangers
Becoming withdrawn is a classic symptom of depression, but the new study suggests that we may actually seek out more solitary experiences when we’re feeling our best.
They kept tabs on more than 30,000 people – mostly from France – for a month.
At random times throughout the day, they would check in on those study participants, or, rather, an app called 58 seconds would check in on them via automated text messages.
The texts would ask how each person was feeling, what they were doing at that given moment, and who they were with if they weren’t alone.
Responses gave researchers a full day’s worth of data on each person’s activities and mood.
This way, they could see how time with any given person – or spent alone – influenced that person’s feelings of happiness.
As part of their anonymous, but very intimate analysis, the researchers also took into account how fun, or not, each activity the participants had done throughout the day was, and even minutia of their personalities, like whether they tended to be in a better mood generally at the start or end of the day.
They found that when people were feeling down, they tended to reach out to and spend time with friends and close connections.
Quality time with loved ones acted like a form of comfort and a social boost. People tended to report better moods after these intimate interactions.
Happy people, on the other hand, actually went looking for less obviously pleasant situations.
They would choose ‘less pleasant types of social relationships that might promise long-term payoff when they feel good,’ the study authors wrote.
But in the short term, these happier people’s less-fun activities did actually make them feel worse.
Psychologists have numerous theories to explain happiness, why we behave socially the ways we do and how the two phenomena relate to one another.
‘Social relationships are viewed as essential to happiness, and happiness is thought to foster social relationships,’ the authors write.
‘However, empirical support for this widely held view is surprisingly mixed, and this view does little to clarify which social partner a person will be motivated to interact with when happy.’
Their findings fit a model called the ‘hedonic-flexibility principle.’
Essentially, this principle says that we don’t just do what feels best at all times – mostly because there are things that have to be done, however unpleasant.
Operating by the hedonic flexibility principle, we are always trying to maintain a kind of happiness equilibrium.
When we’re unhappy, we need time with friends and loved ones to boost us back up at least to, if not above, baseline.
But when we’re operating with a happiness surplus, we can stand for our mood to take a hit or two while doing less pleasant activities, like networking, meetings, or spending half an hour on the phone – mostly on hold – with your internet provider.
And this pattern, the researchers hope, could shed light on how depressed and anxious people’s social patterns are worsening their conditions.
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