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How to live happier in 2023: Diversify your social circle

People need all kinds of relationships to thrive: partners, acquaintances, colleagues, and family. Research by Michael Norton and Alison Wood Brooks offers new reasons to pick up the phone and reconnect with that old friend from home

Published: Jan 18, 2023 02:46:05 PM IST
Updated: Jan 18, 2023 02:57:05 PM IST

How to live happier in 2023: Diversify your social circleTo a lesser extent, social portfolio diversity also had a measurable effect on overall health and positive emotions as well. Image: Shutterstock

The classic advice to investors is to diversify—put wealth into a combination of assets. Perhaps some cash goes into mutual funds, some in blue chips, and a little in growth stocks, spreading out risk as well as opportunity.

What if people thought about investments in social relationships the same way? A group of researchers recently considered that idea in a new study, concluding that variety is a crucial ingredient.

“We wanted to examine what would be the optimal mix of people to talk to over any time period,” says Harvard Business School Professor Michael Norton. “We only have a certain amount of time that we can spend socially, so what are the implications of who we spend that time with for our well-being?”

The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in October, found that much like when investing money, diversification is key when investing in relationships. The study offers new ideas for quiet quitters who are contemplating the meaning of happiness and fulfillment amid pandemic burnout. In addition to Norton, the authors include HBS doctoral student Hanne Collins, HBS Professor Alison Wood Brooks, and researchers from the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business and Esade Business School in Barcelona.

Close versus weak ties

Past studies, says Norton, have shown two seemingly conflicting findings about relationships.

On the one hand, spending time with so-called close ties—such as family members or our significant other—is positively associated with well-being. On the other, interactions with random strangers can sometimes make us happier than interacting with our partner or spouse.

“When people are with their significant other, they can be on cruise control,” Norton explains. “But when people are with a stranger, they want to be friendly and ask questions. So, we try different things with new people, and that can be good for us.” In other words, it’s not that being with our significant other isn’t good for us, but the variety that being with strangers provides can push us to make more of an effort, sparking connection and feelings of well-being.

In fact, says Collins, the study controlled for the kinds of activities people did, and found that even for people who participated in a rich variety of events, mixing up the people they hung out with seemed to provide added benefits.

“The effect is not just about people engaging in different activities with different people—it seems to be something more than that,” she says. “Perhaps it’s about the varied topics we discuss with different people, or the diversity of roles we inhabit.”

Also read: Take this job and love it: How a growth mindset can boost happiness at work

A rich social portfolio

To examine this concept of a social portfolio more closely, the researchers conducted an online survey of nearly 600 people in the United States, asking them to recall their social interactions the previous day and categorize them into categories like stranger, acquaintance, friend, or family member. They were also asked on a scale of zero to 10 how happy they were in the last 24 hours.

The researchers found that, in addition to the amount of time interacting with people, happiness was also associated with the number and type of different people they interacted with.

To explain this, Norton borrows another concept from economics—diminishing returns. “If you make $30,000 and you get $10,000, that’s huge—but if you make a million dollars and get $10,000, it’s not going to mean that much,” he says.

In the same way, “If you spend 12 straight hours with your spouse, maybe adding the thirteenth hour isn’t as good for you as using that hour for a new relationship with a different person.”

They backed up this finding with existing data from several other surveys, including the American Time Use Survey, a dataset from the US Census Bureau tracking how people use their time; and studies from the World Health Organization and users of an app in France. In total, they examined the social interactions of 50,000 people, all pointing to the same finding.

Fine-tuning your mix

To a lesser extent, social portfolio diversity also had a measurable effect on overall health and positive emotions as well.

“The benefits of social portfolio diversity may relate to increases in emotional diversity,” says Collins. “In other words, interacting with a variety of relationship partners involves experiencing a more varied set of emotions, which promotes greater well-being.”

And some of the effects extended beyond just the immediate 24 hours after the interaction to have a longer-term impact on well-being.

Also read: Energetic and happy: The overlooked effect of positive emotions on entrepreneurial alertness

The study seems particularly relevant at a time when many people’s “social portfolios” have narrowed over the past few years due to the COVID-19 pandemic, when relationships have been more difficult to maintain and people might have lost touch with people in their lives.

“An important part of the ‘new normal’ might be to seek out and foster connections with different people in your life,” says Collins. “Chat with your local barista, strike up a conversation with a colleague, reach out to an old acquaintance.”

The best part of the findings, say Norton, is that they point to a way that people might improve their overall happiness without having to carve out any additional time in their busy lives. “You might not be able to find seven more hours in a week to chat with strangers,” he says, “but you could reallocate an hour here and there from one person to another person and see how that goes.”

He advises people to take stock of their own portfolio of social interactions, and, if it seems out of balance, take the extra time to reach out to others.

“If you think across your day or your week, what is the mix of people you are talking to?” he asks. “If they are all from the same category, these results suggest that a little diversification might be in order.”

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[This article was provided with permission from Harvard Business School Working Knowledge.]

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