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Social Networks, Happiness and Love

September 22, 2010

Psychologist Daniel Tomasulo has written a post over at about the importance of our social connections to our sense of happiness. He writes:

[Here’s] what we know from reams of data about happiness and relationships: It is the goodness of social relationships that truly makes us happy. Good relationships are the foundations for almost every measure of well being. Our immune system, our incidental sense of peace and joy, and our optimism for the future is better when we feel good about our daily social relationships. The better we feel in the social network of others in our life, the happier we are. With poor or nonexistent relationships we cannot flourish.

But what does it mean to have “good relationships”? How can we measure the “goodness of social relationships”?

Tomasulo says that psychological research into this question, beginning with the work of Jacob Levy Moreno in the 1920’s, has pinpointed the importance of personal choice when it comes to our social networks.

Choosing who we talk to, spend time with and respond to — and who we don’t — is the stuff of what Moreno called sociometry. He found that people who were able to choose their compatriots did better and survived longer…

Choosing who we want to be with, and talk to, and spend time with sounds like a no-brainer. But the truth is most people simply don’t do it. We feel obligations and play politics, and in doing so lessen the time we spend with people who make us happy. More than this, consider those with little or no choice — those placed in foster homes, prisons, institutions, group homes, rehabs, hospitals, and yes, even college dorms. Why are there so many interpersonal problems in these settings? Moreno would argue that the lack of sociometric choice is the culprit.

Years ago I was hired to consult for an agency that was having problems with several new group homes. The people moving into these homes were from institutions and the community, and they struggled with intellectual, psychiatric and in some cases physical disabilities. There was random violence, noncompliance, and staffing issues. The agency was encouraged to allow the residents to choose their roommates. The staff chose their coworkers and the homes to which they were assigned. Within three months of the change the problems dissolved. The organization has long since altered how roommate and staffing assignments are made.

What made the difference? Perhaps Hubert H. Humphrey, former vice president of the United States, summarized it best: “The greatest healing therapy is friendship and love.” Choosing the people we want to be with is the foundation for both personal and collective wellbeing.

Tomasulo closes his post by urging his readers to do what they can to purposefully choose who they spend their time with so as to optimize their capacity to enjoy their lives, to experience happiness. “Can other people make us happy?” he asks. “Yes, they can. But only if they are the right ones.”

Only if they are the right ones?

It occurs to me that much of Jesus’ Gospel message of universal love (as opposed to Tomasulo’s message of limited love) is that we need to engage in and do that hard work of loving those who maybe are not the “right ones,” not those we are most drawn to, not those with whom we have the most in common, and even those we might call “enemies.” And it seems to me that all this psychological research is helpful in that it demonstrates just how profoundly difficult and even antithetical to our natures it is for us to answer Jesus’ call to love foreigners and outcasts and enemies. Still, I think that’s the work we’re called to do.

But that said, this research also makes me think that we should be careful not to overdo all that “loving the other” stuff. In my reading of the results of this research, spending so much time with people we do not truly feel connected to could simply lead to misery for all involved.

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