Relationships can be highly beneficial in people’s lives. For best outcomes, they need to be face-to-face.
In the past 20 years, there has been a boom in research on happiness, sometimes called wellbeing or flourishing. A range of behaviours and mental patterns have been shown to improve happiness, including being physically active, expressing gratitude, being optimistic, helping others and being forgiving. For some of these topics, authors have written entire books explaining the research and its implications.
Among all the methods of improving happiness, one of the most often cited is relationships. Research shows that positive interactions with others can make a huge difference to people’s lives. This includes family members, friends, neighbours, co-workers and many others, even extending to casual acquaintances and people met in commercial contexts, such as hairdressers and salespeople.
A few years ago, in the happiness course run by Chris Barker and me, the vagaries of timetabling meant that part way through one of my classes, my students and I had to walk across campus to get from one classroom to another. We carried out observations and informal interventions during these walks. One of them was to observe the other walkers we saw on the way, and notice whether they were smiling or otherwise seemed happy. It was striking that those walking and talking in groups nearly always seemed happier than those walking alone.
If this topic interests you, I recommend Susan Pinker’s new book surveying research on relationships, titled The Village Effect. The subtitle gives a convenient summary of the main themes: How face-to-face contact can make us healthier, happier, and smarter. She provides a wealth of examples, case studies, findings and patterns to make the case for the benefits of personal relationships.
She tells about communities in the mountainous regions of Sardinia, where life is traditional and exacting, where people have rich personal connections and where they live far longer than would be expected going by other lifestyle factors such as diet. Pinker uses this as an extended example, also citing much other research on the effect of relationships on longevity and physical health.
The Sardinians are an exception, for they have maintained traditional patterns of village life in the face of incentives to “join the modern world.” There is a deep irony in aspects of contemporary economies. Higher standards of living can improve happiness, but also undermine it.
The irony is that most people want greater happiness, yet the way they go about it can undermine it. An example is seeking a higher income. There is plenty of research showing that, above a certain level, greater income and more possessions make only a marginal difference to wellbeing, certainly far less than alternatives such as expressing gratitude or being mindful. Yet many people, in search of improved happiness, will take on a second job or move to another city at the expense of time with their family and friends.
Face-to-face versus screens
In the past few decades, there has been a big shift from face-to-face interactions to digital connections using email, texts, Facebook and host of other platforms, not to mention the long-standing attraction of television, partly supplanted by video games. It might seem that social media, because they are interactive, are superior to the mass media of radio and television. Pinker quotes research about the advantages of face-to-face contact compared to digital contact.
The irony is that parents who spend their hard-earned cash on gadgets so their children will have immediate access to communication networks may also be facilitating their girls’ feelings of social exclusion. Girls with televisions, computers, and cellphones in their rooms, for example, sleep less, have more undesirable friends (according to their parents), and are the least likely to get together with their real buddies face-to-face. Yet, according to this study too, it is exactly these face-to-face interactions that are most tightly linked to feeling happy and socially at ease. If North American girls spend an average of almost seven hours a day using various media and their face-to-face social interactions average about two hours a day … then many girls are spending most of their spare time on activities that make them feel excluded and unhappy. (pp. 163–164)
Such findings have significant implications in a range of areas. Children are especially in need of personal interaction to stimulate their developing minds, yet digital tools are proliferating and being used at ever younger ages. When it comes to formal education, face-to-face contact with teachers turns out to be crucial. Investments in better teachers appear to be far better for improving learning outcomes than investments in advanced technology.
Many Australian universities, being squeezed for cash, have cut back on class contact. Small tutorials, with maximum interaction between teachers and students, are made larger, and sometimes tutorials are abandoned in favour of lectures, or replaced by online interactions. Evidence cited by Pinker suggests that it would be better to get rid of the lectures and retain the tutorials — at least if learning is the goal.
For example, in one study, almost a million US students in grades 5 to 8 were surveyed about media use, while their school results were monitored. “With the advent of home computers, the students’ reading, writing, and math scores dropped, and they remained low for as long as the researchers kept tabs on them.” (p. 190)
Is there any alternative?
Given that there are numerous ways to improve happiness, are relationships really so fundamental? There may be some loners who can be perfectly happy because they are great meditators or have found an activity that provides a satisfying experience of immersive involvement. Surely they can be happy with low levels of face-to-face contact.
Pinker addresses this, for example noting that although people on the autism spectrum have very poor relationship skills, they can still benefit from improving those skills and interacting more. However, I would not assume this is essential. No doubt even the most ungrateful person can become happier by becoming better at expressing thanks, but this is not the only way to become happier.
More generally, Pinker devotes a chapter to the negative aspects of relationships. Face-to-face connections can be highly damaging in some contexts, with fraudsters taking advantage of the trust engendered by social similarity.
Pinker’s overall message is to try to maintain face-to-face connections. Talk to the colleague in the next office rather than sending an email; take time to visit friends; have meals with family members, in the same room!
However, wider trends are working in an opposite directions. Individuals can improve their own lives by building their personal connections, but must do this in the face of the relentless encouragement to use digital media and to pursue careers at the expense of time with friends and family.
Technology to the rescue?
According to Pinker’s argument, much of the decline in face-to-face interaction is due to displacement by technology, especially the ever-present screens in people’s lives. So technology, while making interaction at a distance far easier, is reducing something valuable.
For me, there remain further questions: are some sorts of technologically-mediated interaction considerably better than others, and could future media simulate being in a room with someone?
The loss of personal connection accelerated with the rise of television, so people watched screens with which they had no interaction. Watching television with others in the room offers the possibility of some live discussion, but it is increasingly common for each member of a household to have their own screen in their own room.
The telephone offers a far more interactive experience. Voices are incredibly rich with meanings independent of the words spoken, so there can be a personal connection at a distance, though visual and tactile dimensions are missing.
Texting and email are more abstract forms of interaction — but at least they are personal, unlike television. Prior to email, people used to write letters, which include a tactile component, and a personal one when handwritten. But letters took a long time to arrive compared to a text. How do these media compare?
Then there is Skype, providing an aural and visual interaction much richer than either telephone or writing. Does it partially substitute for the real thing?
The next stage is virtual reality, in which avatars interact with each other in realistic simulated three-dimensional spaces. Virtual reality technology is available today, but not widely used to mimic face-to-face interactions. In principle, it could eventually simulate nearly every aspect of human contact, even including touch and smell. It will never be exactly like physical presence, but will realistic simulation compensate? Not if people aren’t honest about themselves. Pinker cites research on online dating showing that 80% of people misrepresent their age, weight, height, appearance, income or other attributes.
Rather than look to technology to solve a problem exacerbated by technology, the alternative is to reassert the importance of physical presence. Pinker notes that affluent parents are now giving their children the advantage of schools and teachers with more personal interaction.
There is a certain irony in efforts to recreate the benefits of face-to-face interaction. Many of the poor people in the world live in extended families and in small communities where there are numerous routine personal interactions. They have the benefits of what Pinker calls “the village effect.” Do they have to pass through an isolating development transition, or are there ways to “develop” that maintain the advantages of face-to-face?
Thanks to Don Eldridge for valuable comments.