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Happiness, Loneliness & Friendship: Why Sartre Got It Wrong.

In the existential play No Exit, Jean-Paul Sartre famously remarked that, “Hell is other people.” There is more than a grain of truth to this; from telemarketers, to people who chew too loud, to the tall guy who always sits in front of you at the theater, there is little doubt that other people can be painfully annoying. But psychological studies done over the last few decades paint a different picture. Researchers now know that Sartre couldn’t have been more wrong; other people, it turns out, are actually a strong source of happiness.

As psychologist David Myers explains in his 2000 paper “The Fund, Friends, and Faith of Happy People,” “A mountain of data reveals that most people are happier when attached than when unattached.” In other words, those who have the strongest social, familial and romantic relationships tend to be happier than those who do not. Strong social relationships moreover make us healthier. Research shows that “compared with those having few social ties, people supported by close relationships with friends, family, or fellow members of church, or other support groups are less vulnerable to ill-health and premature death.”

These points are well established and should seem obvious; everyone probably knows through experience that it is more enjoyable and feels better to be around happy people than it is to be around unhappy people. An important study that speaks to this point comes from Roy F. Baumeister and Mark R. Leary. In their 1995 paper, Baumeister and Leary argue that contrary to the Freudian view, which places sexuality and aggression at the center of human motivation, and unlike behaviorism where babies are born as blank slates, human beings are “naturally driven toward establishing and sustaining belongingness.” This means that regardless of age, gender, income, nationality or culture, we are all intrinsically motivated to seek out and establish social ties. As David Brooks says in his latest book The Social Animal, “we emerge out of relationships and we are deeply interpenetrated, one with another.”

What’s less obvious is how health and happiness spread throughout social networks from person to person.

This is the subject of one chapter of Connected, a 2009 book by Nicholas Christakis and James H. Fowler. After an extensive analysis they found two major findings that answer this question. First, unhappy people cluster with unhappy people and happy people cluster with happy people and second, unhappy people are more peripheral. The graph below, in which yellow dots indicate the most happy people, purple dots represent the least happy people and green dots are intermediate, illustrates this well.

Mathematically, Christakis and Fowler found that “each happy friend a person has increases that person’s probability of being happy by about 9 percent [and] each unhappy person decreases it by 7 percent…this helps explain why past researchers have found an association between happiness and the number of friends and family.” This doesn’t necessarily mean that you should play the odds and try to make friends with as many people as possible. Instead, what’s important is quality not quantity. As the authors conclude, “having more friends is not enough – having more happy friends is the key to our own emotional well-being.”

Another important finding is that proximity matters. In other studies Christakis and Fowler found the following: one of three people live within a mile of their closest friend; a friend who lives less than a mile away who becomes happy increases the probability that you will be happy by 25 percent; when a spouse you live with becomes happy the probability that you will become happy increases; when you live within a mile of a happy sibling your chances of being happy increase; and finally, happy next-door neighborhoods increase your chance of being happy.

The downside is that similar trends were found for loneliness. In their words, “if a nearby friend has ten extra lonely days a year, it will increase the number of lonely days you experience by about three. If this person is a close friend, then the effect is stronger, and you’ll experience four extra days of loneliness.” There is even one study which showed that when college freshmen dorm with depressed people, they become increasingly depressed over the course of a semester. In this regard, Sartre was dead-on.

Christakis and Fowler conclude that happiness, unhappiness, and loneliness ripple through social networks not unlike ripples in a pond. The important part of the metaphor is that waves are strongest closer to the epicenter. This means that emotions are contagious and proximity matters. But they caution that it is difficult to say, “what [exactly] causes happiness to spread.”

To be sure, psychologists now know from extensive research that happiness is about 50% genetic. So, while emotional contagion and proximity matter, the influence of other people (excluding parents of course) only goes so far; no matter what, we will almost always return to a default level of happiness.

In the mean time, however, don’t listen to Sartre because according to the data, it sounds like Heaven is other people.

13 Comments Post a comment
  1. Kuze #

    “In the mean time, however, don’t listen to Sartre because according to the data, it sounds like Heaven is other people.”

    September 13, 2011
    • sammcnerney #

      I’m not sure what your argument is. You can’t just quote me and imbed a link to another website and expect me to figure it out.

      If you mean to say that other people can be a source of terrible things I would agree with you; I clearly acknowledged this in the second sentence.

      September 13, 2011
      • Kuze #

        Sorry, didn’t mean to come off as snarky. I just thought saying Sartre “couldn’t have been more wrong” was a little overboard. I think I first heard the “hell is other people” quote in a poli-sci class in the context of 20th century nationalism and disassociated it from the more personal, day to day context of it.

        Great article!

        September 13, 2011
  2. How will you define the networking region? I mean is it spatial? What about virtual networking? And what are its effects on loneliness or happiness?

    Great article indeed!

    September 13, 2011
    • sammcnerney #

      In this post I am defining it physically, or, “spatial” as you say. However, Nicholas Christakis and James H. Fowler also study social networks online. They found similar trends. Below is a link to an article that describes these trends. There is some cool stuff on Facebook, I recommend at least skimming it.

      September 13, 2011
      • laz #

        ‘Obesity spread like a virus. Weight gain had a stunning infection rate. If one person became obese, the likelihood that his friend would follow suit increased by 171 percent. ‘

        hmmmmm….I do not think this can be reduced to the particular ‘network’ of Framingham…it may be nothing more than a subset of the culture as a whole…who is to deny that as a whole, Americans have become ‘fatter’ despite all the ‘healthy food’ trends, etc…it seems a ‘reach’ to impart a ‘viral’ quality to such a subset…guess I will not take the chance though, and will drive around Framingham just to be on the safe side….

        November 7, 2011
  3. HI,

    Making new friends is not diff at all, all you need is to have some time for friends, open minded and keep in touch with all 🙂

    When we moved to london, I lost many old friends for a while, then I find social network to find new and nice friend. today I have many many friends.

    very useful post, I like the theme 🙂

    September 26, 2011
  4. I admire the valuable information you offer in your articles. I will bookmark your blog and have my children check up here often. I am quite sure they will learn lots of new stuff here than anybody else!


    September 30, 2011
    • sammcnerney #

      I’m glad you enjoy!

      September 30, 2011
  5. The more I study Existentialism, the more I find Sartre’s philosophies to be greatly misunderstood. It’s not uncommon for people to disregard Existentialism as depressing, cynical, and often destructive. I recently read about a lecture being held to discuss the implications of reading Sartre as a conduit to suicide. However, Sartre never condoned suicide at all—moreover, he showed despite for people drawing that conclusion. If you read Existentialism as a Humanism (l’existentialisme est un humanisme), Sartre dedicates a great deal of the essay describing the immense positivity and freedom that comes from his ideas.

    “Hell is other people” sounds incredibly depressing. But for many people, the sentiment—to reuse your turn of phrase—is dead on. Sartre writes about the fact that we exist in perpetual relation to other people. This is also true if introverts; whether we actively seek out social interaction, float through effortlessly like the social butterflies that many tend to be, actively retreat due to anxiety, cut ourselves off due to disdain for others or due to severe depression, et cetera along the spectrum, we are always acting with regard to other people, whether we want to or not. We live in an inescapably social world. For those who navigate sociality well, other people are, as you point out, some of the most beneficial additions to our well-being that we can encounter. Little more is better than laughing and enjoying a moment with a close friend, and Sartre recognized this as well. But for those who desire to have those interactions, who perceive them happening around them with such ease, who cannot bring themselves to feel comfortable around others, Hell, then, is truly other people. The phrase is not all encompassing of people and social interplay, but speaks heavily to the level of despair experienced by those who cannot access social interactions well or easily.

    But the quote itself has little to do with this reading of Existentialism, and more to do with the idea of the “look”— the idea that once one looks upon another person and recognizes their subjectivity, that in that moment we experience our own objectivity from their point of view, and recognize ourselves objectively. The distress of this moment is perpetual in the play No Exit (that the quote is taken from) as the three characters are trapped in a room together for eternity, forever reconciling objectivity versus subjectivity. It is maddening. Whether or not anyone agrees with Sartre’s “look,” it is undoubtedly what he is referencing at the end of the play. The recognition of subjectivity in the other causes recognition of objectivity in the self, distressing the observer/self. To be stuck in this experience of other people forever would be a kind of existence that Sartre regarded as true Hell.

    December 16, 2013
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    June 26, 2014
  7. 1yongecondos #

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    May 2, 2017

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