Happiness 101: Expand Your Social Network—Here’s How

September 7, 2018

Multi-tasking during meals may seem like a way to be more productive, but scrolling through emails on your phone over coffee or eating lunch at your desk isn’t as advantageous as it might seem. For starters, research shows that eating meals with colleagues can build a special kind of camaraderie that improves teamwork. And without a high-functioning, well-bonded team, your productivity suffers. Additionally, not eating alone leads to something even more important: happiness.

According to a recent study published by the National Centre for Social Research and Oxford Economics, people who always eat alone score lower in terms of happiness. And people who work 60 hours or more per week are likeliest to dine solo.  

This research, however, is far from the first to show that eating by your lonesome is detrimental to your well-being. A 2017 paper published in Adaptive Human Behavior and Physiology, titled “Breaking Bread: the Functions of Social Eating,” found that people who dine with others can be expected to have larger social networks, be happier and more satisfied with their lives, and more engaged in their communities.

As the author of “Breaking Bread: the Functions of Social Eating” points out, “Friendships provide important health benefits, although the significance of these has only recently been appreciated. There is now considerable evidence, for example, to suggest that the size and quality of one’s social network has very significant consequences for one’s health, susceptibility to illness (and even death), well-being and happiness.” In other words, we now know that social isolation can be more dangerous than physical inactivity or obesity.

Connecting Beyond the Table
Unfortunately, we often ignore daily opportunities to connect with people. For example, many of us stand shoulder to shoulder while commuting and ignore each other. Behavioral scientists Nicholas Epley and Juliana Schroeder wanted to explore why. They ran a series of experiments with Chicago commuters, assigning one of three actions to people in each group: engage with others, sit in solitude or commute as usual (do nothing different).

The results? Participants expected they would be least happy if they had to strike up conversations with others on the train. But, by the end of the train ride, commuters who talked to a stranger reported having a more pleasant experience than those who sat in solitude.

Perhaps more surprisingly, when Epley and Schroeder asked participants to predict how they might feel after talking to a stranger, commuters thought their ride would be more enjoyable if they didn’t talk to others. Additionally, people estimated that only about half of their fellow commuters would respond to them, but the actual percentage was much closer to 100. As Epley said recently in an interview with NPR (in a story about the unhealthy aspects of social isolation and how it’s more common for men), “It’s not that people anticipate that having a conversation once it gets going will be unpleasant. … Instead the barrier seems to come earlier. There’s anxiety about actually starting the conversation, and that’s what seems to lead people to predict that it’s going to be unpleasant.”

Build Your Community
As adults, there are few opportunities to expand our social networks. But if we're happiest when we interact with others and it actually turns out to be pleasant once we do it, how do we begin?

1. Make friends at work. Invite your colleagues to lunch with you, and make real friends with someone at work. (Seriously. A recent Gallup survey found that having a buddy on the job is one of 12 factors that predict workplace success and engagement.)
2. Sit at the communal tables in restaurants and coffee shops. And make an effort reach out to your neighboring diners.
3. Connect while you commute. If you use public transportation, take advantage of the opportunity to strike up a conversation.
4. Play team sports. A new study found that the social interaction involved in partner and team sports might compound the already plentiful benefits of physical activity, adding more years to your life than exercising alone.
5. Find a mindfulness meditation community. A quick online search in your region might result in many opportunities to meet others while also practicing mindfulness.

Contrary to what you might think, it’s unlikely you’ll be snubbed if you make the effort to socialize more—and there’s so much to gain, professionally and personally.