Thursday, February 8, 2007

Outside Room 15: Social Connections

Once upon a time there was a newspaper columnist who spent most of her time trying to figure out how to live happily. One day, while watching her daughter rub her palms raw on the monkey bars, she met a PhD candidate who was doing the very same thing. That is, watching her daughter rub her palms raw while trying to figure out how to live happily. While the columnist had been relying mostly on anecdotal evidence to support her theories, the PhD candidate had been pulling all nighters for six years, forced, as academics are, to pin her theories to studies and statistics. The writer ran an idea past the researcher and a conversation started that, six months later, is still going strong every weekday outside Room 15.

This conversation is continued from last week.

Kelly: So about connection. You know how there's this prevailing desire for space and privacy? People dream of a home with a long driveway on five acres but if and when they get there, it's too quiet, too isolated, too removed from the comforting sounds of a neighborhood. At least for me, the thing I like most about my home is seeing people walk by as I do my dishes or bumping into friends as I walk my kids to school.

Carter: This is what sociologists call social integration, and the upshot of all the research on it is that social connectedness is so closely related to well-being and personal happiness the two can practically be equated. Robert Putnam wrote a really interesting book, Bowling Alone, about how we Americans are becoming less and less connected to one another.



Countless studies document the link between society and psyche: people who have close friends and confidants, friendly neighbors, and supportive co-workers are less likely to experience sadness, loneliness, low self-esteem, and problems with eating and sleeping…The single most common finding from a half century's research on the correlates of life satisfaction, not only in the United States but around the world, is that happiness is best predicted by the breadth and depth of one's social connections (Putnam 2000, p. 332).

Kelly: That’s huge. We could stop right there. The sum of 50 years of research is that social connections create happiness? Wow.

Carter: Seriously, think about that again and how we spend our time: our happiness is best predicted by the quantity and quality of our relationships with others. So proximity to neighbors and friends is an advantage to be valued, not a hardship to be tolerated.

Kelly: Thank God! Acreage in California is a non-starter. And it’s what my children gravitate towards – more kids, more noise, more chaos. It is their natural inclination.

Carter: I do think we are hard-wired to want to be together, and kids tend to show us that. Unfortunately, the average American household is getting smaller and smaller.

Kelly: So what do I do? Me with my tiny household? How can I compensate?

Carter: We’re lucky—our neighborhood is perfect for building social connections because it is safe, and we have sidewalks, and lots of reason to use them since we’re all walking our kids to and from school. So let’s take advantage of that: be invested in our schools and connected to our neighbors.

Kelly: That means building in extra time to connect throughout the day. If our schedule is too tight, I find we have no time to stop and have a chat, or pet a dog, or see my neighbor’s new deck—whatever interactive opportunities present themselves. I want my kids to see me prioritize friendship over the day’s To Do list.

Carter: Well, you’ve hit on something critical there. For kids to have and be good friends, they need more than time to stop and chat. They need to be emotionally literate, and it is incredibly important for us to teach this—emotional literacy—to our children. Let’s talk about that tomorrow!



Further Reading:
Myers, D. G. (2000). The American Paradox : Spiritual Hunger in an Age of Plenty. New Haven Conn., Yale University Press.

Putnam, Robert D. 2000. Bowling alone: the collapse and revival of American community. New York: Simon & Schuster.

6 comments:

Jen Colton said...

I love that you're writing about Emotional Intelligence and the importance of social connections. When I read Goleman's book a few years ago it inspired dread. Could I teach Emotional Intelliegnce? Would my kids have it or not? I've lightened up a bit since then - now that I see how my kids learn behavior and guess what? Big newsflash here - it's observation. They observe how their parents (and sigh, nanny) act, and a lot of what I see in their behavior has to do with how we behave. Note to self- shape up, no trash talking, etc. But I've also learned that they get a great deal from the figures in their lives whom they're exposed to - outside the norms of mom, dad, teacher, cousin. I would love to know what you guys think about another work that is less academic but had a profound impact on me in my twenties-- Composing a Life, by Mary Catherine Bateson. Sadly, I can't particpate in as many as those strolls to and from school with my kids and despite my best efforts to build in more time for connecting with teachers, neighbors and friends it's a big balancing act. On the other hand, this idea of life as a work in progress, as a work of art, is important to me because I think kids also need to understand that life isn't about blacks and whites and that roles and role models can come in many forms. I hope that I will be able to cultivate an environment for my kids that offers stability and balance but also that gives them the exposure to some unconventional relationships that can be really impactful on their development as emotionally intelligent beings. Keep up the conversation! I love it.

Christine Carter McLaughlin said...

Thanks to all who have emailed, posted, and called me with comments! Keep the suggestions for future conversations coming.

A few words about the example we gave about walking to school and the whole long driveway thing. First, I believe you all that you could manage to be happy on 5 acres. :-) Second, Kelly and I are very lucky that our neighborhood and our lives enable the social interaction that it does, and I do try to take advantage of what we have to build relationships around us. But what about people who are less fortunate? A mom called me to ask if kids who live in less safe neighborhoods are less happy. It stands to reason that kids who can't walk to school for fear of being shot will feel more isolated, and therefore less happy. My own research shows this to be true (specifically, that poverty leads to greater unhappiness, and that social isolation has something to do with that connection). What I hope people will take away from this conversation, however, is that social connections are important for happiness. If you live somewhere that you can walk your kids to school and your work schedule allows that, you might consider using those walks to build multi-generational relationships. But as Jen points out, not everyone will build their social connections in the same way -- friends come from many realms in our lives, and all positive relationships are valuable. Including relationships with paid caregivers!

Drew Bendon said...

I agree that proximity is a plus, not a minus (though I can assure you that I'd be perfectly happy on that five acres), but its not a 100-0 proposition. Its about balance and concession; and Americans are taught to value our individual rights, not to embrace the value of collective processes. We need to be reminded of the value of community. And yes you need to have the time, but you don't necessarily have to re-work your schedule to do that. If you can intertwine the two, you can also make it happen. But it only works if you can do the things on your "to do list" where your neighbors do them. To do that you need to have the communal physical spaces where that can take place and create easy access to them. The school yard works for some at some times. For others its parks, or at youth sports events. What's missing in our town is that central meeting place you can go to to just hang out -- like a pub or a coffee place in the park or a pizza parlor, or a town square surrounded by shops you use. Having shops that people access on a regular basis can create the casual meeting: grocery stores, dry cleaners, video stores; or the classic of the past: the barber shop. It also has to be easy for people, physically, to make the connections. Making it easy for people to walk places encourages the walking and the casual conversation. But there are clearly mixed values on these topics in town. Some of the most egregious speeders are parents of school-aged kids in their large vehicles. And many complain about new businesses that they'll create more parking problems.

The Civic Center Mast Plan process will hold a Community Ideas/Imaging meeting Monday February 26 7:30 p.m. at the Community Hall. You should come share your ideas about happiness and community; and the value of proximity.

And another thing ...

I think you've left something hanging that I'd like to see you go back and talk about.

Its not just having emotional literacy, but addressing it. One of the hardest things to teach kids is to balance the happiness. You can't always eat ice cream or watch TV, sometimes the things that make you happy, make other people unhappy and sometimes you've just got to get things done to get to the happy parts. But the getting things done part doesn't have to be "unhappy" and the more they wallow in how its not what they want to do, the more unhappy it becomes.

Monica said...

Thanks for posting all of this, it's wonderful. In my experience, I didn't have as many opportunities for social connections until I moved to the East Bay, which I consider a very special bubble of people, politics, and culture. Even then, I only really began to develop a strong social network in my later years in college. All before that, I felt I had little in common with most people I met -- this doesn't mean I was friendless, I was quite social and had many friends, but very few where I felt a strong connection. I felt alone, and especially in my teen years, dealt with depression and anxiety much of the time. I wonder if this was solely a geographic phenomenon, or also a socioeconomic phenomenon, or had to do with my own emotional development and capacity to connect with others. Probably all three, but I think geography played a large role. I remember feeling so relieved once I started meeting people that cared and thought about the same kinds of things I did. All before then I had questioned my intelligence and instincts. Finally I felt validated. If I hadn't been lucky enough to come to Berkeley and meet so many wonderful people, I might not have ever found the happiness that fills my life today. I don't think it's enough to just stop and talk with neighbors/co-workers, etc., if you live or work in a place where there is nothing uniting people, or they are united in ways which make you feel like more of an outsider. True friendships, ones that are supportive, are much more important than acquaintances. For happiness, people need to seek out communities and environments where they feel kinship. That isn't so easy for everyone, some may not even realize that they need such a thing or that it's a possibility.

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