“We shrivel when we are not able to interact. We depend on the other in order for us to be fully who we are” (Desmond Tutu).

Positive experiences in relationships with people in our close circle are associated with better physical health, according to a study conducted in 2023. Indeed, in recent decades, an increasing number of studies have confirmed the overwhelming impact of relationships on our well-being.

Research has shown, for example, that marriage reduces the incidence of depression, both in men and women, while divorce is associated with an increase in depressive symptoms, with their prevalence remaining high for many years after the dissolution of the marriage. Furthermore, studies have shown that individuals who have lost their life partners have a 20% higher risk of developing dementia (in the case of unmarried individuals, the risk is 42% higher).

Friendship relationships increase the chances of survival by 50%, researchers at Brigham Young University found, who monitored over 300,000 people for seven years. The study showed that lack of social interaction has the same negative effects as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, is more harmful than sedentary behaviour, and twice as harmful as obesity.

In his book “Love and Survival,” Dr. Dean Ornish inventories a multitude of scientific evidence in favour of the healing role of love, concluding that he knows “no other factor in medicine—not diet, smoking, exercise, stress, genetics, drugs, or surgery—that has such a major impact on quality of life, incidence of illness, and premature death from all causes.”

Most researchers have focused on the effects of interaction with family and friends, but the first studies highlighting the surprising benefits of weak social ties with people on the periphery of our social circle have already emerged.

The interaction that makes us happier

For nearly three decades, researchers believed that the “core discussion network” (a concept used in studying social support networks, referring to the group of people with whom an individual discusses important topics) consists of very close individuals. However, a study published in 2013 found that almost 45% of the network of people with whom we have important discussions is made up of individuals outside our intimate circle (doctors, colleagues, spiritual leaders, etc.), whom we turn to because they are well-informed on topics of interest to us or because they are available.

Researcher Gillian Sandstrom decided to study the effects of interacting with people we know very little about after realising how good it felt to be recognized by the owner of the hot dog stand she passes by every day on her way to work, or to be asked by the owner of a pet store how her cat was doing (the fact that he remembered the cat’s name was the icing on the cake).

A first study coordinated by Sandstrom showed that on days when they interacted with more colleagues, students felt happier and had a stronger sense of belonging. Two other studies, which analysed all daily interactions (both strong relationships with close individuals and weak ties with people on the periphery of our social networks), concluded that weak ties are associated with increased social and emotional well-being. Additionally, individuals who interacted with a server at a café (smiling, making eye contact, and engaging in a brief conversation) reported that their mood improved and they felt more socially connected.

Not only the total volume of social interactions matters, but also the diversity of our social portfolio, according to a 2022 study, which found that relational diversity is a good predictor of our happiness. Previous research has reached seemingly contradictory conclusions, showing that spending time with a close person increases well-being, but also that chance interactions with a stranger can bring even more satisfaction than interacting with our partner.

Discussing this apparent incongruity, Professor Michael Norton notes that people tend to go on autopilot in the company of those close to them but try new things when interacting with strangers.

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

Created with a need for social interaction

Even though incorporating these weak ties into our relationship portfolio offers substantial benefits at a low cost, we are quite hesitant and sometimes resistant to interacting with strangers.

When Nicholas Epley and Juliana Schroeder, experts in studying behaviour, asked commuters to talk to other passengers on public transportation, they found that most were reluctant: they underestimated strangers’ desire to engage in conversation and believed that the interaction would not be positive. It was surprising for them to discover that the risk of rejection was almost non-existent and that the satisfaction gained from the conversation was mutual. The study’s authors concluded that we are not sociable enough to reap all the benefits that interactions with others offer.

A 2022 study led by Gillian Sandstrom revealed that the psychological barriers to communicating with strangers can be reduced in just a few days. Building on previous research data highlighting that common strategies to avoid interactions (such as wearing headphones to discourage conversation, focusing on smartphones in public places, or avoiding introducing oneself to a new coworker) tend to establish behaviour patterns over time.

In Sandstrom’s study, participants engaged in a game from Monday to Friday that involved approaching strangers and initiating conversations with them. By the end of the week, the volunteers’ attitudes toward interacting with strangers had changed—fear of rejection and awkwardness diminished, while confidence in their ability to sustain a conversation increased.

The need for social interaction is essential, akin to the need for food, concluded a study by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). After taking MRI scans of the participants’ brains, researchers found that after 10 hours of total isolation, sensations similar to those experienced when hungry were triggered in the brain.

Volunteers agreed to go without food for one day and on another day to be deprived of any social interaction, with images of their favourite foods and preferred social activities presented to them at the end of each day. In both situations, the same brain region was activated: the substantia nigra, also known as the black substance.

“People who are forced to be isolated crave social interactions similarly to the way a hungry person craves food,” says Rebecca Saxe, a professor of cognitive neuroscience, emphasising that the study confirmed the intuitive idea that positive social interaction is a basic human need.

How to become more socially active

Social relationships, broader than just interpersonal ones, must be intentionally cultivated because they represent “the backbone of our well-being.”

People could lead happier lives without needing to seek additional time for weak social connections by simply diversifying the allocation of time already devoted to relational activities, Professor Michael Norton says.

In an interview expanding on the findings of her studies on social interaction, researcher Hanne Collins emphasises that relational diversity has two components: relational wealth (referring to the different categories of relationships we maintain—with parents, siblings, life partners, friends, acquaintances, strangers, etc.) and the consistency with which we engage with people from these categories. People are happier when they manage to distribute their time more evenly among these categories, engaging with both close acquaintances and less familiar individuals who connect them with others who can, in turn, offer different types of support, Collins says.

A higher level of happiness and better health are within our reach if we are willing to devote a bit of our attention and energy to those we often pass by as if they were invisible: “Chat with your local barista, strike up a conversation with a colleague, reach out to an old acquaintance,” the researcher says.

Fifteen minutes a day set aside to contact a friend, relative, or acquaintance represents an important step in building meaningful relationships in a world where we are becoming increasingly isolated, argues Dr. Vivek Murthy, the 21st Surgeon General of the United States. Even if brief, these interactions “can make us feel good for a long time because we are hard-wired to connect.”

When the phone rings, we should pick up, Murthy says. Often, we delay answering, thinking it’s more convenient to send a text to the caller—especially if it’s someone we haven’t spoken to in a while, and the call catches us in the middle of an activity. Even if we only have 10 seconds at hand, the act of answering, assuring the caller that we’re glad to hear from them, then rescheduling the conversation, will leave us in a much better mood than sending a message.

Volunteering is another recommendation for alleviating loneliness and expanding social networks. When our social interactions are limited, our self-esteem suffers—we believe we’re not likeable or valuable enough to others. Volunteering gives us the opportunity to help those in need, but also reminds us that we have something valuable to offer the world, Murthy says.

Carmen Lăiu is an editor of Signs of the Times Romania and ST Network