Social Interactions and Well-Being
Which Kinds of Social Experiences Matter for Well-Being?
Social relationships are often said to be among the most important causes of well-being. Past research clearly shows that people tend to feel happier when they are socializing than when they are alone. What is less clear is which kinds of social interactions matter for well-being, and for whom.
Extraverts tend to be better off across most dimensions of well-being (Sun, Kaufman, & Smillie, 2018, J. of Personality). Intriguingly, however, even introverts feel happier and more authentic when they act more extraverted in the moment (Sun et al., 2017, Emotion; Wilt, Sun, Jacques-Hamilton, & Smillie, under review). Could people become happier if they intentionally act more extraverted? Providing the first published evidence of the viability of an extraverted behavior well-being intervention, my collaborators and I found that most people feel happier when they act “in a bold, talkative, outgoing, active, and assertive way” for one week (Jacques-Hamilton, Sun, & Smillie, 2019, JEP:G). However, we also found that extreme introverts experience fewer benefits—and even some costs (e.g., feeling tired and inauthentic)—of acting extraverted for an entire week.
Which social experiences are more beneficial for introverts? Popular portrayals suggest that “introverts have a horror of small talk, but enjoy deep discussions” (Cain, 2012, p. 11). To test this idea, I combined data from the Electronically Activated Recorder (EAR), an unobtrusive audio recording device that recorded 30-second audio snippets of peoples’ real-world behavior every 9.5 minutes, with experience sampling method (ESM) reports of their momentary well-being several times per day. I found that people experience greater well-being when observers think that the person is having deeper and more self-disclosing conversations than usual (based on EAR recordings; Sun, Harris, & Vazire, 2020, JPSP). In addition, deeper-than-usual conversations were even more strongly associated with feelings of social connectedness for introverts than for extraverts.
Thus, my findings suggest that people could improve their well-being by bringing greater energy and depth to their everyday social interactions; however, personality traits may shape which social experiences are particularly beneficial. Thus, well-being interventions should be tailored to the individual’s personality.
How Do People Regulate Their Social Experiences?
In future work, I am interested in better understanding the dynamics and regulation of social connectedness. There is compelling evidence that social connectedness is a basic need with substantial motivational force (e.g., Baumeister & Leary, 1995; Ryan & Deci, 2000). But how does exactly the need for connectedness operate as a dynamic process across time? For example, how long do people feel connected for after a satisfying social interaction? What strategies do people use to regulate how connected they feel with others—and to balance this need with other valued pursuits? To what extent does a person’s social connectedness depend on their own actions vs. the actions of the people who they interact with? And how do connection regulation strategies and optimal levels of connectedness differ from one person to the next?
To answer these questions, I plan to conduct social network and intensive longitudinal studies, potentially with the inclusion of smartphone sensing methods to unobstrusively track some aspects of social initiation behaviors (e.g., through call and text logs). I am interested in using time series analysis or relational event modeling to model the temporal dynamics of social connectedness. I also plan to use response surface analysis to examine the potential costs of mismatched social preferences.
Overall, this program of research will provide insight into the extent to which people can and do regulate their social experiences to attain the amount of social connectedness that (a) they desire and (b) that would be optimal for their well-being.