Thu. March 7
Are Social Connections Overrated?
A few years ago 60 Minutes did a story on the happiest country in the world. Based on an international survey of happiness, researchers found that while the United States was number twenty-three, Denmark topped the list. In the story Morley Safer interviewed Danish students, professors, and newspaper reporters trying to understand why the Danes were so happy. Sure universal health care, low crime and poverty, and free college tuition all play a role. But it was the way Danes interacted socially that really stood out for me. Instead of being social butterflies, Danes are actually a bit standoffish. A reporter discussed the experience of riding a bus in Denmark. If a Dane was on the inside seat and wanted to get off at the next stop, they would start to move around and jiggle their things to signify to the person sitting next to them they were about to get up. Indeed, it seemed that Danes would go out of their way to not have to talk to strangers.
I thought of this piece when I read Acculturated editor’s Emily Esfahani Smith’s recent post on how technology is killing human connection. Our reliance of Facebook and Twitter–and even devices that allow us to order a drink from a bar remotely–are cutting away at the social fabric that brings people physically together. Smith cites insights from psychologist Barbara Fredrickson on how these small moments of interaction may be a key to happiness for both couples and strangers by creating positive emotions. But if this is really the case, why do the happiest people in the world go out of their way to avoid conversations with strangers?
Research does find that the very happiest people spend very little time alone and have strong relationships with friends, family, and significant others. But what may be most important about these relationships is not just being in a person’s presence, but having rich and meaningful conversation. Namely, it is not the mere act of being around someone that is important, it is two people being together where each is motivated to have a meaningful, positive interaction.
Akin to the average Dane, when I sit next to someone on an airplane I would prefer not to start up a conversation. I have done some subconscious math in my head that a conversation with a random stranger on a plane is not going to result in something more meaningful then catching up on the last week of Accultured blog posts. So occasionally when my seat mate attempts to talk to me, and I give the “I am not interested” response, I suspect that did not have a positive impact on their well-being. As such, while I agree with Smith that human interaction is important and that technology may be thwarting it to some degree, being around people may be positive only insomuch as they want to be around you. Is it actually a bad thing that the self-checkout lines in grocery stores are longer than the ones with cashiers? I am not so sure.