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!
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.