Maintaining strong social ties to friends and loved ones is key to leading a happy, fulfilling life, but what passing acquaintances and random encounters with strangers?
A new study from the Harvard Business School suggests that these types of social interactions can be just as meaningful as our most intimate relationships. Researcher Hanne Collins coined the term “relational diversity” as part of her studies, which looks at the strengths of our interactions, and its effect on mental health.
“Relational diversity has two elements,” Collins told NPR. “One is what we call richness, and this is the total number of relationship categories that you talk to. So, what we mean by relationship category, we mean your parent, your sister, your brother, your friend, your best friend, your acquaintance, a stranger, your romantic partner, anything like that.”
The second element is evenness, which refers to the number of people you talk to across each relationship category.
For example, if you mostly talk to your colleagues and one of your friends each day, that would only be two categories. But if you talk to your colleagues, several friends, a romantic partner, and several strangers, that would be much more even across all categories.
Collins looked at these two categories in relation to a person’s overall happiness. Her team worked with the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics to collect data on a randomly selected group of people. The participants were asked to complete a survey about how their day went from when they woke up to when they went to bed with questions like what were you doing during that time? Who were you talking to? How did you feel? They also collect the same type of data from the World Health Organization.
They found that the more relationally diverse a person’s social life is, the happier they were. The same held true across different countries and backgrounds.
“The idea here is essentially that we have a lot of different relationships in our lives,” Collins explained. “And there’s a lot of research showing that humans are inherently social beings. And social connection is a key factor in our health. And then there’s a lot of kind of evidence that close ties are important, but weak ties are also important.”
She said the goal is to find a healthy mix of both weak and strong social relationships, including people that are close to you and people you’ve just met.
But the idea of relational diversity highlights a debate between causality and correlation. Is it possible that happier people are more likely to talk to strangers, or does talking to strangers actually make people happier?
Collins said they tracked happiness levels over time and found the more relationally diverse a person’s interactions were the previous week, the happier they were the next week – even when accounting for other factors.
She added that her research has had a noticeable effect on her social life. She now makes more of an effort to engage with people she doesn’t know.
“It really has changed how I think about my own social lives. I’m definitely an introvert. I spend a lot of time with my cat. And so I do think I’ve taken this to heart. You know, I joined, like, an adult guitar class because I was, like, I’ll see people. And I’ll chat with them, and that will be nice. You know, they don’t have to be my best friends. But at least they’re acquaintances, and they’ll kind of add this diversity to my social life. And I really – I’ve tried to take this to heart, for sure.”
As a nurse, you’re probably used to interacting with all kinds of individuals at your job but engaging with people outside of work can be equally important. The next time you’re feeling depressed or anxious, try striking up a conversation with a stranger as well as your loved ones..