Sometimes the answer is right in front of your nose, so here it is, right in the first sentence: if you want make yourself measurably happier, in a substantial way that is backed by decades of data, then stop reading this and go and hang out in person with another human being - preferably one that you like a lot - and shoot the shit for half an hour. You can finish this article later.
"Hell is other people" - Jean Paul Sartre
"Hell is the absence of other people" - actual science that we should heed
Some days, you just can’t deal with Other People. It’s understandable. Your boss is being a dick, the bus driver is being a dick, your partner is being a dick. The world is full, at any one given time, of people being dicks, and they most annoying thing about dicks is that they make your life less happy.
So screw ’em, and hole up on your own for a bit. Do the right thing and take some me-time.
But it’s cosy on your own. And safe. And it seems like there’s less reason to engage with other people IRL than ever: social interaction as and when you want it, from the comfort and safety of your sofa. So you can get the best of both, right?
We’re social animals, and so we have social networks.
We like chatting, and so we hang out in chatrooms.
We crave companionship and so we accrue as many followers as possible.
We want partners so we scan apps ’n' swipe right.
And, on the whole, we do all of these things all alone.
Ever got the feeling you’ve been cheated?
A Life In Full
Since 1938, Harvard College has tracked the lives of two groups of men: a bunch of Harvard graduates and a bunch of men who came from Boston’s most deprived community. It’s part of what’s called The Harvard Study of Adult Development and is just about the longest continual focussed study of adult life that's ever been undertaken.
The study is today lead by Robert Waldinger, a man who decided that being a Harvard psychiatrist wasn’t quite fulfilling enough, and is also a psychoanalyst *and* a Zen priest.
In this time, participants have transitioned from rich to poor, success to failure, well to sick, and vice-versa. And all along, Harvard scientists have taken blood samples, interviewed them at length, scanned their brains, quizzed them, and probed just about everything you can fit a probe into. It’s allowed them to look at a series of lives in full, and make some measured, careful conclusions.
And the one thing that makes humans truly happy, and increase their mental and physical health? Relationships with other people.
That’s it. Hanging around with friends and partners is the secret. It’s almost as if human beings are noticeably social animals, or something.
Waldinger explains this in the measured tone of a man who has nearly a hundred years of overwhelming data to back up his statements:
“Loneliness kills. It turns out that people who are more socially connected to family, to friends, to community, are happier, they're physically healthier, and they live longer than people who are less well connected.”
And yet, today, “more than one in five Americans will report that they're lonely.”
We’re in the most connected time of all time, and 20% of us are lonelier than ever, and the impact on our happiness is astounding.
Ruth Whippmann, who has written a good book with the anxiety-inducing title America the Anxious: How Our Pursuit of Happiness Is Creating a Nation of Nervous Wrecks, sums up all this research and our aims in one pithy statement.
“If we want to be happy,” she points out, “we should really be aiming to spend less time alone.”
Our old pal, the USA government’s Time Use Survey (which is now such a regular feature on MONTAG that it should possibly have its own writing credit) says that the average American spends under four minutes a day “hosting and attending social events.” This category includes any arranged party, social meetup or dinner parties.
Most people spend longer on the toilet per day than doing stuff with other people that’s designed to bring us together in a fun way.
Meanwhile, the average American also spends only a smidgen over 30 minutes per day on “social communication” - that is to say, any bloody communication at all between two people in the flesh where the topic is not work-related.
If you sit on a bus and chat to your companion about the price of fish for 35 minutes, then you are doing more than the average American to make yourself happy, and frankly, that’s crazy.
This is bananas because in today’s society, we have been slowly and deliberately prised apart, and the worst part is that we’ve kind of enjoyed the ride. Fragmented into seven billion tiny individual particles, we’re all floating as solo, self-contained units; hyper-connected but more disconnected than ever.
Seven Billion Little Pieces
In our brave world of hyper-connectivity, the buck starts and stops with the individual. The luxury of choice is regarded as “good” in the realm of relationships. Some days you just don’t want to go and hang out with other people; you want to curl up in a novelty velour onesie and scroll through the oddly well-subscribed Facebook group built around short-lived 80’s TV show Street Hawk - “Quite simply the biggest and best Street Hawk group.”
And all the time we’re doing this, we’re together, alone. Physically apart but mentally with others. And that’s good… right? Well, no, not really.
The option to be utterly alone whilst using technology that gives us the illusion of togetherness is the stretched dichotomy of our age: we crave relationships and have instinctively made technology that - on the surface - allows it. And we’re more alone than ever, in the most crowded and connected version of planet earth that there has been.
The individual is monetisable: every phone needs its own apps and accounts; every subscription longs for a subscriber; every browser needs an individual to pin tracking data to. From the perspective of big business, we are much more desirable as individuals than together.
So your fight for happiness is doomed if you start and end with the virtual connection: these services are not intrinsically designed to make you happy - they’re designed to keep you in the app, on the page, in the playlist.
The secret to long-term happiness is in relationships that exist in the flesh: the clammy, smelly, warm, spittle-flecked realm of IRL. Touching distance, not touching from a distance.
Your Long-Term, Deep-Set Happiness To-Do List
Go to a bar. Buy a drink. Talk to literally anyone you have positive feelings about for more than 30 minutes. Congratulations: your life is more fulfilled than most Americans, and you are doing the one thing - being with other people in an engaging way - that is proven to have long-lasting positive effects on your life and your happiness.
And sure, use your phone to stay in touch. But mainly, use it to arrange time to meet up and put the phone away for a bit while you recharge your real happiness.