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Weak social ties are just as important as strong ones for greater life satisfaction

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ELEANOR RIGBY")

THE BEATLES: (Singing) Ah, look at all the lonely people. Ah, look at all the lonely people.

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Would Eleanor Rigby and Father Mackenzie have been happier together? Probably so. But would they have been even more happy if they also went to the pub or a football match? That's the question Hanne Collins asked. She's an author of a new study out of the Harvard Business School looking at relational diversity. And she joins us now. Welcome.

HANNE COLLINS: Hi. Thanks for having me.

RASCOE: So relational diversity - a lot of people may not know exactly what that means. But it's supposed to be a mix of strong and weak relational ties. Can you tell us what that means and how you distinguish one type of relationship from another?

COLLINS: Absolutely. So it's a very good question. I will admit we made the term up as we were writing the paper. So no worries if you don't know what it means. Relational diversity has two elements. So 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.

And the second element of this relational diversity is evenness. So this is kind of - we think about this as the relative evenness with which you talk to people across those categories. So you could imagine in a day, you mostly talk to your colleagues. And then maybe you kind of once or twice talk to your friend. So that's not very even. But if you, you know, have a few conversations with colleagues, a few with friends, a few with a romantic partner or a couple chats with strangers, you know, that's going to be more even across these categories. So there's kind of those two aspects - the richness and the evenness of people's social portfolios.

RASCOE: And how do you measure those ties and, like, the happiness associated with them?

COLLINS: So a lot of this is, you know, big data sets that are kind of publicly available. So one comes from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. And, you know, they - while they're doing their census data collection, they'll actually randomly select people, and they'll ask them if they're willing to do an extra survey. And in this extra survey, they'll essentially ask them to break down their day yesterday - from when they woke up to when they went to sleep - and just tell them what they did. You know, what were you doing? While you were doing that, who were you talking to? How did you feel? Things like that. Another kind of source of data we look at is data collected by the World Health Organization. And they do a very similar thing. And so we get these very rich data sets about what people are doing, who they're interacting with, how they're feeling and their general well-being, as well.

RASCOE: OK. And so what did you find?

COLLINS: Yeah. Well, it's pretty simple, really. We basically find that the more relationally diverse people's social portfolios were - so the more, you know, number of relationship categories they talk to in a day, and the more even their conversations are across those categories, you know, the happier they are. And we find this in a large sample across many countries. And the idea here is essentially that we have a lot of different relationships in our lives. 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. And so what we find is, essentially, it's about this mix. You know, it's about kind of connecting with people who are close to you, who are maybe less close to you, who connect you with other people, who provide different kinds of support. Essentially, the idea is that the more diverse your social portfolio, the happier you are and the higher your well-being.

RASCOE: So, I mean, I guess thinking of it that way, if your partner is your best friend and your only friend, your well-being may not be that good, right?

COLLINS: Yeah. I think it's a good point. I think it definitely differs for a lot of people. But, you know, maybe next time you're at the grocery store, strike up a conversation with the cashier. Maybe that will help, you know? Maybe kind of enriching your social portfolio in small ways like that could be really beneficial. Or at least I encourage you to try it.

RASCOE: So, I mean, when you see this association, though - you know, we always talk about correlation versus causation. Could it be that people who are happy do more things and are more likely to interact with someone because they're happy? And if you're not happy, you don't really want to deal with anyone.

COLLINS: Yeah. That's an amazing question. Thank you for asking. We do have one kind of set of data where we follow people over time. So we have, like, weeks of their social portfolios and what they're doing in their social lives and their daily reports of well-being. And we're able to kind of do some lagged analyses where we essentially look at, you know, was your diversity of your social portfolio last week predictive of your well-being this week, controlling for everything you've done this week? And we do find that, yes, you know, the more relationally diverse your interactions were last week, the happier you are this week, even when we control for your - you know, who you talk to this week and everything you've done. And so it does suggest some element of causation here from one week to the next. But I think this is a totally fair point. I think that a lot of our data is correlational. And hopefully, you know, in the future, we can send people into the world and - to enrich their social lives and see what happens.

RASCOE: OK. And so I'm curious about this. Has working on this changed your behavior? Did this make you want to talk to that person at the grocery store, at the bus stop or wherever and do more of that?

COLLINS: Totally. I would say yes. 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.

RASCOE: That's Hanne Collins, a graduate student at Harvard University and author of a new study on relational diversity and well-being. Hanne Collins, thank you so much for joining us.

COLLINS: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.