The Power of Social Connection: Week 2 of “The Science of Happiness” on edX

On September 9, the first positive psychology MOOC (massively open online course) called “The Science of Happiness” launched on edX. A whopping 100,000 students were signed up to learn more about what researchers have discovered about how to be happier. Taught by Berkeley’s Dacher Keltner and Emiliana Simon-Thomas, the course promises guest lectures by Sonja Lyubomirsky and Barbara Fredrickson and is an amalgamation of videos, readings, and happiness exercises.

Now, the self-paced version of “The Science of Happiness” will run until May 31, when all quizzes and tests are due. If you’re taking the course and want a refresher, or are just a little curious, here’s a summary of the content for week 2, The Power of Social Connection.

Intro to week 2

Social connection and happiness (Emiliana Simon-Thomas)

Research from across the field of positive psychology has shown how important social connections are to our happiness. Very happy people have rich relationships and spend little time alone, talking with friends is one of the happiest activities, and sex and socializing give us a lot of positive emotion. On the flipside, loneliness is correlated with health problems like hyperinflammation, decreased immune response, and trouble sleeping, and being excluded by others creates the same effect in our brains as pain.

“Scratch a happy adult, find a socially connected childhood” by Lauren Klein

One study in New Zealand followed hundreds of people from childhood to age 38 to understand the link between achievement, social connection, and happiness. Both achievement and social connection were associated with happiness for kids, but as they reached their later teen years, social connections became more important. Social connections give us support during challenges in life, help us see our strengths, and provide meaning.

Why do social connections foster happiness?

Why are humans ultrasocial? (Dacher Keltner)

Ultrasociality in humans refers to our caretaking behavior, egalitarian relations, tendency for forgiveness and reconciliation, coordinated and imitative actions, and monogamy. Yet modern society is becoming less social in certain respects, evidenced by our higher divorce rates and less marital satisfaction, increases in loneliness, and fewer close friends.

Causes and consequences of attachment styles (Dacher Keltner)

According to John Bowlby, families become attached to each other thanks to three systems: reproductive (sex), caregiving (between parents and babies), and attachment (love and commitment). Taken together, these three systems create “working models” in our brains: deeply held views about whether other people are trustworthy and how to relate to them.

Bowlby also identified three attachment styles: secure, anxious, and avoidant. People who are securely attached are loving, warm, and trusting; as a result, they tend to be happier, have more positive emotions, have more stable relationships, and be optimistic, forgiving, and supportive. People who are anxiously attached never feel close enough or loved enough. They’ve often experienced divorce, abuse, or a parent’s death, and they are more prone to depression, drug abuse, anxiety, and eating disorders. People who are avoidantly attached avoid closeness, remaining aloof and distant. Anxious and avoidant attachment styles are considered “insecure,” and we can combat them in the short term by simply thinking about positive relationships we’ve had, or in the long term by cultivating a relationship with someone who has a secure style.

“How to stop attachment insecurity from ruining your happiness” by Meghan Laslocky

Sometimes psychologists talk about a fourth style of attachment: fearful-avoidant, where we want to be close but are afraid of being hurt.

To overcome our insecure attachment, we should understand our personal style and consider seeing a therapist with expertise in attachment. If we’re in a relationship, we should make sure our partner is securely attached or consider couples therapy if they aren’t, and practice communicating better. Any movement toward secure attachment has beneficial side effects, including more generosity, altruism, and compassion.

Evidence that we’re built to connect

The vagus nerve (Dacher Keltner)

The vagus nerve is a mammalian nerve that starts at the top of our spinal cord and runs downward through the neck muscles we use to nod, make eye contact, and speak. It has connections to many key physical functions, including our oxytocin networks, immune response, and inflammation response. It also coordinates the interaction between our breathing and heart rate and controls many digestive processes. Activity in the vagus nerve is related to feelings of connection and care, so it activates in response to emotions – responding strongly to empathy and weakly to emotions like pride. People with lots of vagal activity show more positive emotion, stronger relationships and more social support, and more altruism.

The science of oxytocin, “the love hormone” (Dacher Keltner)

Oxytocin is a neuropeptide, a sequence of amino acids that affects the brain and organs. It is increased by touch, and people with a particular gene on their third chromosome produce more oxytocin. When you give a whiff of oxytocin to people, we show more trust, generosity, empathy, and ability to read emotions. In fact, giving a father oxytocin will cause his baby to show increased oxytocin. Giving oxytocin to non-human species increases monogamy and caregiving.

In general, more oxytocin correlates with a reduced stress response in our hormones, cardiovascular system, and amygdala. On the positive side, it correlates with secure attachment and peaceful conflict resolution in romantic relationships.

“Five surprising ways oxytocin shapes your social life” by Jeremy Adam Smith

Oxytocin, produced by mothers during childbirth and breastfeeding, is widely known as the feel-good hormone. Yet there is a flipside to oxytocin: while it attaches us to some people, it also makes us exclude others.

Hyped up on oxytocin, we are loyal to our lovers and leery of other potential partners. We’re transformed into poor winners and sore losers; oxytocin courses through us when we feel envy during a game or taunt other players – anytime we want something from someone else. Deprived of oxytocin, we’re more apt to forget negative social encounters, so cruel people can “fool us twice.”

Oxytocin promotes cooperation, to the extreme – boosting our oxytocin levels makes us more likely to follow group decisions instead of thinking for ourselves. According to some studies, it also makes us favor our own group and see it as better than others.

Thankfully, however, we don’t need to be afraid of sci-fi dictators pumping us with oxytocin. Although it makes us more trusting, we’ll still have doubts and hesitation if the person we’re dealing with or the message they’re promoting doesn’t seem quite right.

Attachment, happiness, and the brain (Emiliana Simon-Thomas)

Our attachment style, shaped by our early childhood experiences, affects how oxytocin is released and used in the brain. The mechanism is something called the “care-nurturance circuitry,” which controls the production of oxytocin. In comparison to securely attached people, anxiously attached people have a greater amygdala response to negative feedback and avoidantly attached people have a lesser response to positive feedback. In other words, insecure attachments increase the sting of criticism and dampen the thrill of praise.

The science of touch (Dacher Keltner)

We are physically built for touch, with dexterous hands and skin that is full of information-processing neurons and manipulates our immune response.

Touch can be used to communicate emotion – in one study, even a one-second touch on the arm could communicate emotions like gratitude, fear, and disgust with 50-60% accuracy. We’re better at differentiating certain emotions when they’re expressed through touch rather than face or voice. Touching someone creates feelings of reward, reciprocity, safety, soothing, and cooperation. In certain situations, the touch from a romantic partner is powerful enough to eliminate our stress response.

Yet our culture is becoming touch-deprived, particularly in the United States. While friends at a cafe in France or Puerto Rico touch each other over 100 times per hour, we cool Americans touch each other twice. Many babies died in orphanages before caretakers started holding and touching them.

To combat this trend, touch therapy is being used in health care and education. It has (almost miraculously) been shown to increase weight gain in premature babies, reduce depression in Alzheimer’s patients, make students more likely to speak up, and decrease mortality in patients with complex diseases.

The voice: A primal way we connect

Finally, our voice is a key tool for connection. We’re able to make more vocal sounds than other primates – in fact, we can communicate many emotions like interest, disgust, and sadness without even saying a word (hmm!). Our ears are also specially built for hearing human speech.

Romantic relationships, family, and friendships

Relationships, marriage, and happiness (Dacher Keltner)

Pair-bonding is a human tendency across cultures, but relationships have come a long way in the past centuries. Economic considerations have given way to love and romance as the deciding factors in selecting a partner.

Scientists distinguish between desire and love, which can even be observed in primates. Much like humans, primates express desire through actions like pursing and licking their lips, and love through open arms and smiles. Love behaviors, but not desire behaviors, coincide with the release of oxytocin.

Marriage correlates with happiness, but researchers are still trying to untangle whether marriage makes us happier or happier people get married. Some evidence suggests that it’s actually happy marriages, not just marriage, that make us happy – and, in fact, unhappy marriages take a huge toll on kids’ happiness.

Certain demographics of people are more likely to have happy marriages, such as people who are older, from a higher social class, and not anxious or neurotic. Influential research by John Gottman and Robert Levenson shows that happy marriage is predicted by the way couples interact: couples who exhibit contempt, criticism, stonewalling, and defensiveness have a 92% chance of divorce, while happy couples exhibit humor, appreciation, forgiveness, and emotional disclosure.

Parenting and happiness (Emiliana Simon-Thomas)

Research on the connection between parenting and happiness is still ongoing. On one side of the arena, we hear that spending time with our kids is only slightly more fun than housework. On the other side, we’re starting to hear that parents are slightly happier than non-parents, particularly right after having their first child.

But the truth is probably more nuanced. Whether we’ll be a happy parent or not may depend on whether we purposely chose to have kids, and what kind of attachment style we have. And the happiness of parenting may be more the “meaning” type of happiness and less the “positive emotion” kind.

“What makes a happy parent?” by Emily Nauman

In fact, many different factors have an effect on whether a particular parent is happy or not. Parents who are older, male, and securely attached tend to be happier. Parents with trouble-free, easy-tempered, and older children are as well. And so are parents who have strong social networks, are married, and have custody of their kids. And don’t forget that happy parents make for happy children.

How friendships matter for happiness (Dacher Keltner)

Friendships, or alliances with non-kin, have many benefits to our lives. While chimpanzees (and some humans) use them to gain power, the more civilized among us find practical help, emotional support, and a sympathetic ear in our friends. Friendship and connection have health benefits, activating oxytocin, combatting stress, and even increasing lifespan.

“Are some social ties better than others?” by Juliana Breines

Social capital refers to the tangible and intangible benefits we get from our social connections. But like everything in life, social connections have their drawbacks.

Online contacts – even Facebook friends – can provide advice and emotional support, especially for the introverts among us. Yet too much focus here can lead to narcissism and loneliness. For the most benefit, we should look for niche groups online and deliberately try to offer our help to others.

Professional contacts aren’t just useful for watercooler chit-chat; they also help us find new jobs and expose us to a larger community of people with diverse ideas and opportunities. As such, they’re called “bridging capital.” Professional contacts can’t give us intimacy or emotional support, but Breines reiterates her advice from the online sphere: look for niche groups to join and offer help to others, and we’ll be happier.

Friends provide us with deeper benefits, including a sense of belonging, visibility, and a chance to express empathy. The main dangers of friendship are jealousy and dependence: we may become discouraged or bitter about our friends’ successes, or rely on them too much for approval and self-esteem. The best way to handle these is to remember that we want our friends to be happy – don’t we? – and to realize that their success benefits us, too.

Finally, significant others – partners, best friends, or family – provide us with a cornucopia of mental and physical benefits. They fall under the category of “bonding capital,” providing support in times of need. The biggest danger here is that we rely on one person too much, creating unrealistic expectations or dependence. The remedy is to remember to keep cultivating friendships as well.

Social capital works best when we have a combination of strong and weak ties. That way, our support system doesn’t collapse if we lose a single node. But each connection takes time and effort to maintain, so it’s our job to prioritize and know when to say no.

Why cross-group relationships matter for happiness (Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton)

As if we need another reason to get rid ofour prejudices, it might just be good for your health. Prejudiced people get stressed in the presence of people outside their group, but three deep interactions with “outsiders” is enough to lower stress levels. To become more egalitarian, we should deliberately expose ourselves to and cultivate friendships with people outside our in-group.

Happiness Practice #2: Active listening

One practice that’s been shown to increase happiness is active listening. Take 15-30 minutes a week to have a conversation with someone you’re close to, and ask them to share what’s on their mind. As they’re talking, show attentive body language and don’t get distracted or interrupt them. Make sure you understand by paraphrasing what they’re saying and asking questions. Try to be empathetic and avoid pronouncing judgments. When they’ve finished talking, share something yourself.

This technique is especially useful for difficult conversations and showing your support. It can make your conversation partner feel more understood and improve satisfaction in your relationship.

The science of empathy

The science of empathy (Emiliana Simon-Thomas)

There are two types of empathy: affective and cognitive. Affective empathy refers to a feeling or an action – the way we absorb or imitate the feelings and expressions of others. We begin mimicking others as infants, and continue mirroring expressions and body language into adulthood. Some studies even suggest that mimickry helps us understand what emotions other people are feeling. Affective empathy may be facilitated by mirror neurons, which are motor neurons that fire even when we’re just watching other people move (although there is some controversy about whether they affect emotions, as well).

Cognitive empathy refers to a thought – the ability to understand how people feel and to see things from their perspective. Cognitive empathy involves broader parts of the brain.

Empathic concern can make us happier, as long as it doesn’t turn into empathic distress (the kind of paralyzing feeling when we become overwhelmed by others’ suffering). In general, empathy increases the sharing of positive emotions and brings people closer together. And if other people are empathetic, we get the benefits of their understanding and support when we’re in need.

“The evolution of empathy” by Frans de Waal

Empathy is useful from an evolutionary perspective because it encourages us to care for our young and work cooperatively in groups. So it should be no surprise that humans aren’t the only empathetic creatures: researchers have observed empathy in domestic pets as well as apes, who console fellow apes who are suffering. Over the course of our lifetime, empathy grows from relatively simple mimicry and transmission of emotions to the more complex ability to take someone else’s perspective.

Empathy has a role to play in bringing people across the world closer together and reducing discrimination. But to do that, we’ll have to figure out how to overcome our innate tendencies to hate our enemies, ignore strangers, and distrust people who are different.

“Six habits of highly empathic people” by Roman Krznaric

We can cultivate empathy by learning and thinking more about the lives of other people. Try having conversations with strangers and being genuinely curious about how they live. In fact, in any conversation, make it your goal to understand how the other person is feeling and to express your own feelings. Challenge yourself to discard prejudices and get to know individuals. Literally walk in someone else’s shoes and live a day in their life.

To take your empathy to the next level, draw on your fellow human beings’ empathy and lead a movement to provide aid or reduce discrimination. Go so far as to empathize with your opponents in order to figure out how to speak to them and change their minds.

Year of Happy two linesWant to keep learning about the science of happiness? Join us for The Year of Happy, a free online course starting January 4 to help you get happier in 2016. You’ll get weekly readings and videos by email and learn to apply the science of happiness to your own life, all in 2 hours a week. Find out more or sign up here!


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