Humans thrive on a smorgasbord of “social nutrition” that includes both restorative alone time and meaningful social interactions, according to a new study. The more choice people have about the social diet, the better they do.
The findings (Hall & Merolla, 2019) were published on December 6 in the journal Human Communication Research. Jeffrey Hall of the University of Kansas and Andy Merolla of UC Santa Barbara are the co-authors of this study.
Almost 400 people participated in this diary-based study. For 28 consecutive days, each participant documented his or her “social diet” along with feelings of subjective well-being. The researchers use the term “social biome” to describe the unique blend of social interactions and alone time that people experience in daily life.
“Your social biome can be thought of as homeostatic social system,” Hall said in a news release. “Some interactions are required, like ones you have to do for your job, and some are habitual or routine. But some are intentional, personal and meaningful in ways that strongly link us to one another. We’re working to identify the patterns of interactions that reflect a well-functioning social system.”
Most people’s “social biome” includes hanging out with friends or family, casual small talk with random strangers, occasional heart-to-heart conversations, periods of solitude, and more. Taken together, the diary entries from this study resulted in 10,368 snapshots of everyday sociability patterns and how people felt during various types of social engagement and during periods of solitude.
Hall and Merolla describe the significance of their current research: “This study contributes to the ongoing discussion about how the pattern and nature of daily sociability are reflective of human thriving.”
This animated YouTube video sums up what Hall and Merolla discovered while mapping social biomes.
Five Key Takeaways from Mapping Social Biome (Hall & Merolla, 2019)
- More frequent and longer social interactions are associated with having a healthier social biome.
- People with the healthiest social biomes tend to have more choice about when, where, and how they interact with others.
- Those with the healthiest social biome had meaningful conversations 2.5 times more often than those with the least healthy social biome.
- During periods of solitude, those with healthy social biomes feel more content being alone.
- Individuals with a healthy social biome, in general, express affection or concern for others about nine out of 10 days.
After analyzing swaths of data, the researchers discovered that a blend of everyday interactions that fortify meaningful social networks combined with some “contented” alone time was linked to higher degrees of life satisfaction and flourishing. Notably, the researchers point out that “experiencing unsatiated social needs when alone was negatively associated with [overall] well-being.”
What Is the Communicate Bond Belong (CBB) Theory?
One primary objective of the social biome study was to do a deeper dive into Hall’s Communicate Bond Belong theory (Hall & Davis, 2016), which provides an evolutionary hypothesis for different motivations that drive human communication during social interactions.
CBB theory is rooted in two fundamental principles: First, humans have an innate motivation to secure meaningful relationships as part of our collective survival. Second, it’s impossible to be sociable all the time because each of us needs to conserve energy to do other things that are key to individual survival.
“It’s not that we have to rearrange our entire lives so we sit and commune with the closest people around us all day long,” Hall said in a news release. “The results support the idea that we need a couple of high-quality interactions in a day, which can range from serious discussions to catching up and joking around.”
The study also reinforces that feeling a sense of contentment during time alone is fundamentally important to a balanced social diet. “You need to be quiet, meditate, nap, chill, whatever you do,” Hall said. “It’s alone time, but it’s about having a balanced system. It’s not just that more social time is always better. It’s about ratios. It’s about proportionality.”
CBB research suggests that people want to experience strong social bonds without feeling exhausted. “Every day, we have interactions with people that are exhausting,” Hall observed. “Research on friendship has always said that one of the main characteristics of a close friendship comes from a sense of ease.” On the flip side, obligatory social interactions can sap our energy because there isn’t a sense of familiarity and ease.
All I Want for Christmas Is…Some Restorative Alone Time to Keep My Social Biome Healthy
Small talk conversations (like those I always seem to have with amiable Uber and Lyft drivers) can be exhausting. Obligatory social interactions often require a lot more effort than shooting the breeze with a bunch of friends or having a coffee catch-up with your BFF.
The latest social biome findings (2019) have implications for big family gatherings during the holidays, too.
As a real-time example: I’m writing this blog post in the predawn hours by a cozy fire in a festively decorated hotel lobby about 25 miles from my parents’ house, which is packed to the gills with extended family. I couldn’t be more content than to be alone, right now, as the sun rises on Christmas morning. That said, once day breaks and people start waking up in my family home, I’m looking forward to heading back and having some meaningful social interactions over breakfast. Spending all of Christmas Day alone would make me feel lonely.
In Christmas’s past, I felt guilty about seeking intermittent doses of solitude at this nearby hotel instead of wanting to spend 72-hours of straight “bonding” with close-knit kin under one roof. This year, I realize that having some restorative alone time — away from the emotionally heavy (but rewarding) social interactions with family members — keeps my social biome healthy. In fact, I think it’s good for everyone’s social biome to seek periods of high-quality solitude and to carve out time for meaningful one-on-one dialogues during big family gatherings.
Last weekend, a hilarious “Home for the Holidays” skit on Saturday Night Live featured Eddie Murphy giving a toast to his extended family before Christmas dinner. Although everyone at the table pretended to be at ease, the dining room scene was spliced with flashbacks that showed a mosaic of stressful social interactions in the days leading up to Xmas that pushed every family member to a breaking point.
Looking at this SNL skit through the lens of CBB theory drives home the point that family interactions can be exhausting. Most of us need some restorative alone time to regroup during high-intensity social engagements.
Jeffrey A. Hall and Andy J. Merolla. “Connecting Everyday Talk and Time Alone to Global Well-Being.” Human Communication Research (First published: December 6, 2019) DOI: 10.1093/hcr/hqz014