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In good company: Why we need other people to be happy

Even people we like the most can drive us crazy, but at the end of the day, there’s no truer adage than “can’t live with ‘em, can’t live without ‘em.”
Image: Colleagues high five each other
Psychology says that part of human nature’s default mode is to be social. One theory: people have an innate (and very powerful) need to belong.Sam Edwards / Getty Images/Caiaimage

For a lot of people, 2017 meant trying times. And divisiveness. We fought with politicians, neighbors, family, friends, the media, men and strangers we’ve never even met, thanks to social media. It’s been enough to make one want to try their luck on a desert island — anywhere without WiFi.

Our hope for 2018? Perhaps it’s remembering that as much as the people around us can drive us up the wall, no man is an island. It takes all types to make the world go ‘round. And people are meant to be around other people (even those we don’t always agree with).

“Human beings are an ultra-social species — and our nervous systems expect to have others around us,” Emiliana Simon-Thomas, PhD, Science Director of the Greater Good Science Center at The University of California, Berkeley, tells NBC News BETTER. In short, according to biology, neuroscience, psychology, and more, our bodies actually tend to work better when we’re around not alone.

Being lonely has been linked to worse physical and emotional health outcomes and poorer wellbeing. Plus, a lack of social support can directly affects our potential for experiencing happiness, explains Simon-Thomas, who studies the biology of our emotions and thinking. “We’re built to really seek social companionship and understanding.”

Here are all the reasons why:

1. Being around other people makes us healthier.

Physiologically, not having a social support system is actually a source of chronic stress for our bodies, Simon-Thomas explains. Studies show that when people feel lonelier they have higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol. And that type of chronic stress raises risk of cardiovascular disease and other challenges to health and wellness, Simon-Thomas adds. Conversely relationships can encourage behaviors that are good for us, too (like eating right and exercising).

So it makes sense that studies show having fewer social ties is associated with more heart disease, cancer, and impaired immune function, as well as with worse recovery when it comes to those health problems.

Research dating back to the 1970s suggests people with weaker social networks actually die younger (due to any cause) than people who have more extensive social networks. A more recent review of 148 studies concluded that on average having stronger social ties increased likelihood of an individual’s overall survival by as much as 50 percent.

2. Our brains seem to work better when we work together.

There’s a growing body of evidence that suggest our brains actually function better when we’re interacting with others and experiencing togetherness. That’s according to a 2015 review article published by a group of Finnish neuroscientists in the journal Neuron.“Social interaction is among the most complex functions humans (and their brains) perform. Yet, the interaction typically appears surprisingly easy,” the coauthors write in the paper.

Research shows, for example, that listening and participating in a two-person conversation is actually less mentally taxing for the brain than giving or listening to a monologue, even though what we understand about how we process language would suggest otherwise. Other studies show children learn better by interacting with other rather than observing.

3. Psychologically, we prefer to go through life not alone.

Psychology says that part of human nature’s default mode is to be social. One theory: people have an innate (and very powerful) need to belong. Some key arguments (published in the journal Psychological Bulletin in 1995) is evidence that shows most people make social ties under most conditions — and most people try to avoid breaking those ties if they can.

Another way to think about it is the social baseline theory, which suggests the human brain expects access to social relationships. That’s because those connections help lower potential risks one might face (think “safety in numbers”) and lessen the amount of effort needed when it comes to a variety of scenarios (if the objective is to build a shelter, there is literally less work for each individual if two people do it).

Experiments have shown that simply holding someone else’s hand lessens an individual’s emotional response in the brain to a perceived threat. (The effect was even greater if the person’s hand you were holding was a spouse.) Another oft-cited experiment found that individuals actually perceived a hill to be steeper if they were standing at the bottom alone compared with when they stood at the bottom with a friend, Simon-Thomas notes. “Just having another person there and present, who you trust and feel safe around makes the world look like a less challenging place,” Simon-Thomas.

4. When we’re around people who drive us crazy, we grow.

So what about the coworker who cannot stop preaching his political views? Or your friend’s best friend who you just cannot stand to be around? It’s good when relationships challenge us, says Simon-Thomas.

They can help us extend our status quo and how we see the world, she explains. “These ‘being driven crazy’ moments are truly well thought of as opportunities for growth and transformation, which can ultimately be a more poignant source of sustained happiness.”

That’s because having a diverse variety of emotional experiences — including feeling sad, angry, anxious, or irritated — expands our capacity to feel good, too, she explains. And it’s totally normal for our closest family and friends to be the ones who do that.

The exception is when a relationship’s negatives outshine its benefits. Be wary if a relationship encourages bad habits or causes distress, says Debra Umberson, PhD, Professor of Sociology and Director of the Population Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin. “A bad relationship is worse than no relationship when it comes to health.”

DO IT BETTER: Being grateful for the people around us helps

Simon-Thomas’ advice for reaping the benefits of your social ties: Be grateful for your relationships (including those that challenge you).

Research shows people who are more grateful tend to be happier, tend to be more satisfied in their relationships, tend to be less vulnerable to various physical discomforts, tend to be more resilient when it comes to stress and trauma, and are more well-like by others compared with people who are less grateful, she says. “Make a point of noticing who around you is contributing to the goodness in your life and actually express it by saying thank you.”

And remember, it’s okay to have some “you” time when you need it. We all need time to ourselves to rest, decompress and reflect on whatever’s going on in our lives, Simon-Thomas says. It recharges us for when it is time to face (and embrace) the rest of the world again.

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