We choose how to interact and relate to others.
People interact with each other in a variety of ways. These interactions don’t always go smoothly: people push and shove on a crowded train, cut into line, yell at each other in traffic. Are such stressful encounters inevitable, just a part of life? Maybe the fleeting interactions we have with strangers aren’t worth the time and effort we invest in our close relationships. But it turns out that even brief, positive interactions with strangers can have important impacts, adding meaning to life and making our days more pleasant. The work of social scientists gives hints for improving our interactions with the people we encounter daily.
If you pay attention, you’ll see a wide range of positive social behavior: people hold open doors, volunteer time, donate money to charity, even risk their lives to save others from danger. Social scientists call these prosocial behaviors—broadly, actions intended to benefit others. (If you have an easier time thinking of negative behaviors than prosocial ones, it may be because of another psychological tendency called the availability heuristic.) People in all cultures behave prosocially—cooperation is essential for social groups and societies to succeed. Even among social animals, individuals help each other.
Doing good is good for you
Social scientists have shown it truly is “better to give than to receive.” Research shows that giving to others can make you happier than getting something. Participants in one study were given money to spend over the course of a day. Some were instructed to spend the money on themselves, and some to spend it on other people. Participants who spent the money on others reported greater happiness at the end of the day than the self-spenders. This benefit of giving to others has been replicated in a study of more than a hundred cultures across the world—so the next time you need a little happiness boost, do something nice for someone else!
Doing good is contagious
You give up your seat to someone on the train, buy a sandwich for a stranger who asks for food, or help a tourist who’s lost. You might think you benefitted only the person you helped, but in fact, your kindness might have a ripple effect. Social scientists believe that certain behaviors and feelings can spread from one person to another. This also seems to be true for negative behaviors, so be aware of the actions you’re putting out into the world.
Striking up a conversation and connecting with a stranger can boost our well-being, but depending on how these interactions go, they can also be stressful and undermine our health, for some of us more than others. In diverse public settings, we need to be mindful of why others may be guarded when we are trying to connect.
We think of empathy as a good thing, and it’s certainly related to such positive outcomes as generosity and decreased polarization. It’s less well known that empathy can also have a downside and sometimes lead to hostility and further polarization. For example, having empathy for someone who is suffering can be so distressing that we turn away from their pain ("I can’t stand to see this") or blame the sufferer for their own misfortune ("it’s their own fault"). Empathy can even make us aggressive, leading us to attack the, perceived “bad guys” on the sufferer's behalf. Of course, that doesn’t mean we should be less empathetic, just that we be mindful of how it makes us feel about others.
Connecting with others requires us to be sensitive to other people’s points of view and feel concern for their well-being, even—or especially—when we fundamentally disagree with them. This is often easier when we have a shared sense of “we.” Social scientists believe that people can strengthen their social bonds when they include the other in their idea of the self. Reaching out to, learning about, and connecting with diverse individuals broadens our idea of who “we” are beyond our immediate family and friends to include a wide spectrum of people. This helps us feel compassion for—and behave prosocially toward—strangers and people whose values, appearances, and situations differ from our own.
To maintain a sense of connection with others and empathize in a constructive way, try these tips:
Remain aware of your own biases and practice perspective-taking.
Don’t take it personally—what looks like hostility from another person may have nothing to do with you.
Breathe and slow down to reduce the physiological arousal linked to intense negative emotions.
Recall your shared humanity.
Use humor to defuse a tense situation and gain perspective.
Humor as a social catalyst
Humor is a powerful tool that can either decrease or increase social distance, depending on how it’s used. Social scientists have identified styles of humor that lead to different outcomes. Humor associated with positive interactions, called affiliative humor, involves spontaneous joke telling, witty banter, and good-natured teasing. In one study, social scientists found that the more of this kind of humor romantic couples used during conflict, the more they laughed, the less angry they were, and the happier they were with the conflict’s resolution. Humor that is self-deprecating (making ourselves the butt of the joke) or aggressive (flinging sarcastic remarks) was less successful at creating warm social bonds. These types of humor depend on the nature of the interaction and the attributes of the people involved. Unless we know someone well, it’s best to use affiliative humor; it puts others at ease, reduces tension, and signals that we want to make people happy, if only for a moment.
The Conversation. “Understanding Others’ Feelings: What Is Empathy and Why Do We Need It?” (article)
L. F. Nordgren, K. Banas, and G. MacDonald (2011). “Empathy Gaps for Social Pain: Why People Underestimate the Pain of Social Suffering.” Journal of Personal Social Psychology, 100(1): 120–128. (abstract)
Anita Varma (2017). “When Empathy Is Not Enough: The Possibilities for Solidarity in the San Francisco Homeless Project.” Journalism Practice, 13(1). (abstract)
Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Timothy B Smith, and J. Bradley Layton (2010). “Social Relationships and Mortality Risk: A Meta-Analytic Review.” (paper)
Christian Smith and Hillary Davidson (2014). The Paradox of Generosity: Giving We Receive, Grasping We Lose. (book)
Natalie Henrich and Joseph Henrich (2007). Why Humans Cooperate: A Cultural and Evolutionary Explanation. (book)