There is plenty of evidence to convince us that social connection is key to well-being. But relationships are complicated, bringing good and bad into our lives.
Let us share a few key insights from scientific studies published in 2018 on topics relevant to leading a meaningful life. They won’t solve all of our social problems—but we hope they will help you to better understand yourself and the people around you.
1. Mindfulness can help you regulate your emotions in real-time
All of us have probably lost our cool at one time or another—maybe yelling at the phone company or at a child who misbehaved. But these outbursts are rarely very effective, and they often leave us feeling ashamed and regretful.
How to handle anger better? Recent studies suggest mindfulness could help.
In a study published in Mindfulness, David DeSteno and his colleagues randomly assigned participants to either a three-week mindfulness course (training in breath and body awareness, open awareness of thoughts, and not judging experiences) or a control activity that involved solving cognitive puzzles, prior to bringing both groups into a lab. There they gave a talk—and then received a scathing review of their performance from an undercover research assistant in the audience. Afterwards, researchers asked them to make a condiment mixture for their critics to sample based on a few ingredients, including a very hot pepper sauce—a way to see how aggressive they would be.
The results? Those who’d practiced mindfulness meditation said they were just as angry as non-meditators…but they added significantly less hot sauce to the mix. Apparently, the meditators were more able to feel anger without lashing out.
Other recent studies support the idea that mindfulness can help us regulate our emotions amid social tension. In one, more mindful spouses were able to maintain lower blood pressure and greater heart rate variability—indicating better recovery from stressors—while discussing marital conflicts than people who were less mindful. Another found that more mindful people seemed to be less distressed when they were excluded by others, and their brains showed decreased activity in the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, too—a pattern associated with exerting less cognitive control over emotional upsets.
These finding suggest that mindfulness could help us manage our anger better—not by suppressing it, but by staying cool while anger passes through us. That’s why DeSteno says that mindfulness meditation does “exactly what the developers of meditation hoped that it would do: increase ethical behavior by preventing people from inflicting harm on other people in a situation where that’s the normative response.”
2. Beware hubris: You’re probably not as good at empathy as you think you are
Do you consider yourself to be pretty good at identifying what other people are feeling? Well, don’t be too confident, suggest four recent studies.
One study, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, ran multiple experiments testing how accurately people gauged the feelings and thoughts of others. Some people were specifically instructed to try to walk in others’ shoes, while others were instead asked to do things like concentrate hard or imitate the expression on the other person’s face. The researchers found that the shoe-walkers did no better at accurately reading another person than any of the other groups—and, in some cases, they did worse.
In yet another recent study, researchers asked some participants to look at the face of a person who was watching an emotionally evocative video—and then guess the emotion in the video from the face of the watcher. Another group simply watched the video and tried to imagine how it would make a stranger feel. You might think that faces are an open book, but the people who tried to guess the emotion in the video from a watcher’s face were more often wrong than those who just watched the same video themselves.
In these studies, the most confident people were often the least accurate at empathizing. The problem is hubris—thinking we understand people better than we do and jumping to unwarranted conclusions. But there are ways to improve our empathic skills. Over the long term, we can work on developing our own self-awareness—since, in two other studies this year, more self-aware people were better at identifying the feelings of others.
In the meantime, we can better understand others—whether a spouse or someone on the other side of the political spectrum—if we simply ask them questions and listen carefully to the answers.
3. Smartphones can make in-person interactions less enjoyable
As smartphones become ubiquitous, it seems like it’s becoming more and more socially acceptable to use them in different settings. But how does this affect our relationships with other people?
A study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology investigated how smartphones influence in-person interactions by inviting over 300 people to share a meal with friends or family at a cafe. Some people kept their phones out next to them, while others turned their phones on silent and stowed them away. Afterward, they filled out surveys about their experience.
Ultimately, the people who dined without their phones felt less distracted and (in turn) enjoyed the meal more. They were also less bored and in a better mood. In a separate analysis, the same team of researchers pinged 123 students randomly during their daily life—to find out what they were doing, how they were feeling, and whether they were using their phones—and the same pattern appeared. People just didn’t enjoy socializing as much if they were on their phones.
“Phone use prevents individuals from fully engaging in the present moment,” the researchers write. “Despite their ability to connect us to others across the globe, phones may undermine the benefits we derive from interacting with those across the table.”
This seems to be true even for people who grew up with smartphones, like the college students in the study. In fact, another study published in Emotion this year suggests that well-being is declining among teens and that screen time may be to blame. A team of researchers led by Jean Twenge found that teens who spend more time on screens and less time on offline activities tend to have reduced well-being. And since 2012, the first year when a majority of Americans owned smartphones, the rise in screen time has gone hand in hand with decreases in teens’ self-esteem and satisfaction with life.
There was one hopeful finding in Twenge’s study, though: On an individual level, teens who spent more time interacting with friends online also spent more time with friends in-person. Our online and offline worlds are not always a zero-sum game—but maybe, as the first study suggests, it’s best not to combine them during the same meal.
— ADAPTED FROM ARTICLE BY KIRA M. NEWMAN, JEREMY ADAM SMITH, JILL SUTTIE, AMY L. EVA, JAMES MCCONCHIE over at Greater Good. Based at UC-Berkeley, Greater Good highlights ground breaking scientific research into the roots of compassion and altruism. Copyright Greater Good.
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