Every older generation loves to look down on the way the newer ones speak – the phrase “kids these days…”could come from the mouth of parents from 1915 or 2015 and mean the same thing: Kids are speaking differently, therefore they’re speaking incorrectly.
What people often fail to recognize in this is that English isn’t being ruined, it’s just changing – and that’s actually a good thing. If our language never evolved, we would still be speaking as Shakespeare did. Or English may not have been created at all, since plenty of other languages came before it.
How are Millennials Involved?
Millennials are at the forefront of this change, which is to be expected. For decades, the youngest generations have always been the ones to establish language shifts. They may do it as a way to create a generational identity, or as a way to gain power in a situation where they don’t typically have it.
In a world where your parents make the rules, it feels better to make your own language.
How are They Changing English?
Basically, they’re shortening it. Phrases are often abbreviated into one or two syllable words, such as YOLO (“you only live once”), FOMO (“fear of missing out”), and BAE (“before anyone else”). Words themselves are shortened to just one syllable by cutting off the rest of the word, as in totes (“totally”) or perf (“perfect”).
However, not only are these abbreviations not ruining English, they’re actually following some very strict rules.
Do you notice that every acronym they make can be pronounced easily? That’s because they aren’t randomly combining letters, they’re choosing ones in easy consonant-vowel combinations. Millennials aren’t choosing letter combinations that are hard to say, like “gf” or “kt.” They even apply English grammar rules to their new creations. For example, the Millennial slang word jelly (“jealous”) came from shortening “jealous” to “jeal” and then applying the –y suffix to make a new adverb. This has also happened with the word feels (“feelings”).
What Does this Mean for Marketing?
Since Millennials value authenticity, social media marketers who want to get their attention should value Millennials’ style of speech. Listen to what they’re saying, and how they’re saying it.
This doesn’t mean your brand voice should mimics theirs – no one likes a copycat – but you should be aware of the changes happening in the linguistic space because they may likely stick around for good. And definitely don’t mock them.
Many think that communicating science is a necessary and rewarding activity. Yet finding compelling, relevant, and timely points of linkage between challenging scientific concepts and the experiences and interests of the general public can be difficult. Since science continues to influence more and more aspects of daily life and knowledge, there is a parallel need for communication about science in our society. Here I discuss the “ middle-ground hypothesis ” using popular culture for science communication and applying the “ FUNnel model, ” where popular culture is used as a lead – in and wrap – up when discussing science. The scientific knowledge we find in our hands does not belong to us—we just had it first. We can honor that knowledge best by sharing it as widely as possible using the most creative means at our disposal.
Using popular culture in science communication can allow the sharing of knowledge to the largest audience.
“Most of the fundamental ideas of science are essentially simple, and may, as a rule, be expressed in a language comprehensible to everyone.” -Albert Einstein
“…With great power there must also come—great responsibility!” -Stan Lee
There And Back Again: A Neuroscientist’s Epiphany
Back in 2005 I began to question the broader societal impact of my work as a neuroscientist. At that time, my most heavily cited paper had ∼150 citations, and, although I realized this was a harsh interpretation, I asked myself, what if that number meant that only 150 people read my paper? Was 150 readers an acceptable impact for me in the “traditional” academic sense? My answer then and now—that same paper has over 400 citations and my body of work ∼4000 total citations—was “no.” I decided to make conversations with the general public, in addition to the community already engaged in academic literature, a stronger emphasis in my activities.
Since that time, I have been involved in many “outreach” activities focused on a general public audience—writing books, blogs, media, and talks for science promotion. I have also worked to encourage my students and colleagues to get more involved in science communication. When I compare other attempts to quantify impact in my communication activities, they contrast sharply in numbers. For example, my blog at Psychology Today magazine has over 250,000 page views.
Many think that communicating science to the public is a necessary and rewarding activity; however, finding compelling, relevant, and timely points of linkage between challenging scientific concepts and the experiences and interests of the general public can be difficult. Despite these challenges, science continues to influence more and more aspects of daily life as knowledge and communication about science continue to increase in necessity and importance in our society. In his amazing book “The Demon Haunted World—Science as a Candle in the Dark,” the late Carl Sagan wrote about the lack of understanding of science and described it as “…a prescription for disaster…sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces” (Sagan, 1995).
There are many problematic consequences of a society at large that remains without scientific knowledge, has little understanding of the scientific process, or feels segregated from the concepts. For example, elected officials may not fight for and lobby for providing funding for research and may be elected on platforms based on gross inaccuracies and flawed logic. Others include the antivaccine movement, and concussion in children’s activities and their long-term impact.
This commentary is based mostly on my own experiences using icons in popular culture to serve as vehicles for communicating science. For example, I used the Walking Dead to illustrate human motor control in a zombie context (Zehr and Norman, 2015), and Darth Vader to consider phantom limbs, embodiment, and neural prosthetics (Zehr, 2015a). The bulk of my work in this area, though, has been to use superheroes. These efforts have also led to advances in my own approach to undergraduate education. At the University of Victoria, I now teach a 100 level course“The Science of Batman” that is open to students from all faculties and departments with an interest in science and superheroes.
I explored themes of plasticity in biological systems in “Becoming Batman: The Possibility of a Superhero” (Zehr, 2008), and the enhancement of biological function with technology in“Inventing Iron Man: The Possibility of a Human Machine” (Zehr, 2011b). Here, I will not talk much about the need for Science Committee—please see David Eagleman’s essay on its importance (Eagleman, 2013). Instead, the focus is largely on examples of science communication using pre-existing elements in society and popular culture.
Previously, I outlined some of my early efforts (Zehr, 2011a) and advanced the “middle-ground hypothesis” using popular culture for science communication (Zehr, 2014a). Here, I extend that concept and describe some strategies that form the central core of my philosophy of science communication. To resonate with this colloquial approach, the structure of this commentary is deliberately written in a journalistic style using the first person voice.
Understanding The Needs Of Your Audience Is The Key To Effective Science Communication
Science often makes audiences uncomfortable because it forces them outside their base of knowledge. So, I try to make things as pleasant—and as fun—as I can. This maximizes the likelihood of my audience engaging with the science concepts I have chosen because they want to do so. To facilitate this engagement, I use popular culture as the link between science and the general public. Taking something the audience is familiar with (e.g., superheroes) and linking it with something they are not (e.g., neuroplasticity) allows them to enter a conversation without putting up barriers.
Although there can be many other approaches, I strongly encourage using popular culture because it is, as the name says, already popular. Superhero movies and television shows continue to have extreme popularity and represent excellent opportunities for exploring scientific concepts in a middle-ground mental “landscape” that is comfortable and familiar.
Communications guru Marshall Mcluhan said that “the medium is the message” (McLuhan, 1964) to highlight the importance of both knowledge and the manner in which it is presented. We must combine the medium and our message to truly communicate with our audiences. I strongly urge the use of ready-made vehicles, such as popular culture icons, because they represent the most seamless access to the interests of the general public. For me, superheroes are perfect for this since they afford well known examples of exploring the truth and fiction of science that underlie their fictional powers.
In the approach I favor, the medium becomes the middle ground for the message. Popular culture as both medium and content becomes the connecting point between the science and the audience. This middle-ground hypothesis is shown in Figure 1 and is meant to apply widely to communication among all groups and ages. This illustration shows how a common middle ground can facilitate the movement of ideas. Around the folks shown talking together are science concepts that I have addressed in my books and blogs using superhero popular culture icons.
Communicating science using popular culture as the “middle ground.” This basic illustration shows the idea of a conversation between scientists and the general public. Information is exchanged using the bridging afforded by popular culture icons in the “middle ground.” The words and phrases found around the figures represent science concepts used in this way in the books “Becoming Batman,” “Inventing Iron Man,” and “Project Superhero.” In the process of writing these books and selecting concepts for discussion, I consulted “Neuroscience Core Concepts: The Essential Principles of Neuroscience” (Society for Neuroscience, 2016) and core principles in physiology (Michael et al., 2009).
Some Examples Of Using Popular Culture As The Middle Ground
In “Becoming Batman,” I used the well known superhero Batman to represent the ultimate human produced by physical and mental training (Zehr, 2008). The key point was for readers to better understand their own bodily function while thinking about that of Bruce Wayne. To evaluate what parts of Batman’s mythology might or might not be grounded in science, I surveyed neuroscience, genetics, biomechanics, psychology, physiology, and pathological outcomes. This involved comparing the representation of Batman’s skills and abilities shown in comics, graphic novels, TV, and movies to what might be found in real occupations that contain those same elements.
The result suggests that DC Comics’ Dark Knight is a mix of a NASCAR driver, NFL running back, mixed martial artist, Parkour expert, and Cirque du Soleil gymnastic acrobat. Importantly, acquiring the skills and abilities necessary for all these activities means Batman is also subjected to all the associated physical stresses and strains that produce negative outcomes in the form of injury and illness.
Using this popular culture middle ground scaffolding I addressed the many scientific components and concepts underlying the adaptations that would be needed to actually produce the Caped Crusader. The overarching concept was to view all of Batman’s training and actions as challenges to homeostasis and balance in his body.
The key culmination of this analysis was that with the necessary genomic attributes, mentors, teachers, training opportunities, time to commit, the psychological commitment and drive, and money to afford all of this, portions of Batman’s mythology do resonate with reality.
In “Inventing Iron Man” I borrowed from Samuel Taylor Coleridge and asked readers to use a “willing sense of disbelief” and imagine that Iron Man’s exoskeletal suit of armor actually existed. Then I used the structure of the book to explore how such a suit of armor could actually work in connection with the body. The main focus is considering Iron Man as a biological control problem of human ability enhanced by technology (Zehr, 2011b).
Where Batman represents the ultimate in human conditioning by training, Iron Man becomes the ultimate in brain–machine interface. The suit of armor can also be considered a form of advanced “tool” for Tony Stark’s brain to use. Pathological outcomes are also raised when discussing the implications for adding another tool to the body schema. This brings out issues like phantom limbs and cortical plasticity in both beneficial and pathological outcomes, which were also explored in posts at Scientific American (Zehr, 2012a). Thus, much of the content in “Inventing Iron Man” centers on the engineering and neuroscience concepts contained in the rapidly expanding field of brain-machine interface.
In addition to extreme performance, superheroes can also be used as metaphors for “normal” and pathologically reduced performance. For example, in “Inventing Iron Man” I suggest that the habitual use of a real Iron Man exoskeleton would result in extensive physiological deconditioning effects and negative health implications. These examples are paralleled with real-world examples of deconditioning found after physical inactivity and long-term space flight.
The implications of concussion and mild traumatic brain injury were addressed in my first three books (Zehr, 2008, 2011b,2014b) and also in blogs (Zehr, 2012b). I was careful to highlight the dysfunction that occurs with increased energy demand and neuronal metabolism along with decreased supply and how that gives rise to concussion symptoms. This leads to discussions about secondary impact syndrome, the importance of protecting the brain from future concussive incidents, and how such exposure may lead to increased symptoms and susceptibility with lower impacts occurring over time.
I have not only focused on Batman and Iron Man, though. Using other superheroes I have explored the genetic regulation of human muscle strength via myostatin in considering Superman (Zehr, 2013b), tissue repair and enhancement after orthopedic injury when considering the “healing factor” of Wolverine (Zehr, 2013a), and considering the creation of neurological chimeras with enhanced hippocampal processing in the form of Rocket Racoon from “Guardians of the Galaxy” (Zehr, 2014c).
My biggest challenge, however, was writing a book for young adults. Project Superhero distills the main themes in “Becoming Batman” and “Inventing Iron Man” but puts them in a context for young adults (Zehr, 2014b). My first attempt to do this was an incomplete failure. I tried to take the content from my first two books and just write it using simpler language. My agent was quick to let me know that this would not be very interesting for young readers, and that I should do a bit more reading of my own in young adult fiction and nonfiction.
The first-person diary-style narrative was (and is) hugely popular with younger readers. Examples abound, but one of the most well known is the “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” series by Jeff Kinney. After reflecting on the needs of this new audience I was trying to reach out to, I decided to adopt the popular diary style but also chose to combine commentary from real people in creating a hybrid fiction/nonfiction book.
Project Superhero includes many of the concepts in neuroscience, physiology, martial arts, and nutrition I wrote about in “Becoming Batman” and “Inventing Iron Man,” but which were now recast in a format that was more accessible for a younger age group. This also required me to produce a fictional story and narrative arc in the book to follow my protagonist Jessie and her friends across their eighth grade year.
While this book was my most challenging, it has also been extremely rewarding. I have received many letters and e-mails from readers, but the review I treasure most is one posted on Goodreads by teen “Daniel” (Goodreads, 2016):
When I pick books up from the library, I usually sort them into three piles, based on how much I want to read them. This is one of the few books from the third (least want to read) pile that I gave 5 stars. I seriously loved this book. It is amazing, from interviews with actual heroes, to the facts it blends in, to the story that is amazing. The book is themed on superhero comics, but have not read any comics and I still grasped the story good. Jessie is a quiet introvert that loves reading superhero comics with her friends. When she starts 8th grade, she is ecstatic to hear about the Superhero Slam debate competition, but can she overcome a fear of public speaking to become her own superhero? Overall AMAZING book!
My next book, “Creating Captain America: The Possibility of Enhancing Our Evolution” will be published in 2017 (Zehr, 2017). This book completes the trilogy I began with “Becoming Batman” by considering how much we can now alter our own biology using science and engineering. This book has a much larger philosophical focus, and a major theme is considering what we will accept as a society when it comes to the functional abilities of “normal” humans, a concept I have also written about in several journals (Zehr, 2015b,c).
Another great example of fusing popular culture with science—physics in this case—is “The Physics of Star Trek” by Lawrence Krauss (Krauss, 1995). In the foreword to “The Physics of Superheroes,” Krauss nicely captured the idea of using the popular culture middle ground with “…few things are more memorable than confronting one’s own misconceptions… if you want to reach out to understand popular misconceptions, then exploiting where we get our cultural perspectives from is a good place to start. And if that means borrowing from Superman, or Star Trek, I am all for it!”
Of course, it is not necessary that popular culture examples be drawn solely from comic books or science fiction, as in many of the above examples. Other examples might be using past or present sports figures, applying famous historical events (e.g., the moon landing or the Battle of Troy) or using current news stories (e.g., Zika virus, water treatment, and the Olympics; vaccines and vaccination). With a little thought and planning, almost anything can be used to make science fun and accessible.
Effective Communication Is All About Accessibility And Fun
In seeing the effectiveness of others’ science communication activities and reflecting on my own experiences in this area, I came to realize that the approach I took could be conceptualized as a dual funnel—wide at both ends and narrowing in the middle. The end portions represent engaging the general public with relevant examples, and the narrow bit in the middle is where all the science content finds a home. This is shown graphically as the FUNnel model for science communication in Figure 2.
The FUNnel model for science communication. The simple concept here is to use popular culture as the lead-in and the summary for science concepts. For example, borrowing the approach I took in “Inventing Iron Man,” at Step 1 you might begin with Iron Man as a topical example of a human being with abilities amplified by technology. Then, asking how could this work, in Step 2 begin to lead into robotics, neuroprosthetics, and the brain–machine interface. This leads to a discussion about the organization of the brain and spinal cord, and how this allows for the ability to extract information about movement and movement planning that could be used to control an advanced prosthetic in the form of Iron Man. This leads into Step 3, where you return to the Iron Man armor and briefly summarize the level of technology currently available to support (or not) the comic book icon.
Our Knowledge Is Power That We Do Not Own
I think we need to really ask, how effective do we actually want to be with science communication? Do we want to go through the motions of communicating or do we want to be truly effective? I suspect most of us do want to be effective and are intrinsically motivated to be so. If that is indeed true, then making all efforts to be maximally effective should be encouraged.
We scientists really do have a powerful role to play in our society. The science superpowers we possess include discovery, creation, synthesis, and dissemination of knowledge. For the last in that list, dissemination, it is critical to appreciate that this includes conversation with society at large, not just among our academic colleagues. That is the hidden science superpower that most of us have to work to realize. Yet, it is important work.
For we scientists to be effective, it is not sufficient to simply translate what we want to communicate into simpler words and concepts for nonspecialists. Instead, we need to put our concepts into the context the target audience is ready to receive. To be effective, this means going outside our comfort zones to more effectively enter the comfort zones of our audiences.
We need to go beyond simply asking what we think our audiences should need or ought to know. Instead, the real questions are how will they know it, what is the medium through which they are ready to know it, and how do I translate the scientific messages into a comfortable message for them?
There is a famous phrase from a very famous comic book written by Stan Lee and drawn by Steve Ditko. That comic book gave us the debut of a certain “Spider-Man” (Amazing Fantasy #15, published August 10, 1964), and in it Peter Parker learns an important lesson about responsibility. After failing to act to subdue a criminal, that criminal goes on to kill Parker’s Uncle Ben. Peter reflects that “…all my fault! If only I had stopped him when I could have! But I didn’t!” Stan Lee’s last words in the final panel of the comic states that “with great power there must also come—great responsibility!”
I propose that we all have our own superpowers of communication that we can use to stop misinformation and poorly conceived ideas that many may have about science because they are not engaging in our “traditional” outreach activities. We use our “powers” by stepping up and communicating with the other members of our communities and our society who are not scientists. Of course, to make increased advocacy activities sustainable in science, academic institutions and funding agencies must also demonstrate the value of these activities by tangible action.
To paraphrase Sir Frances Bacon, “knowledge is power.” It is time to accept that our efforts to create and generate scientific knowledge put great power into our hands. This also obliges us to exercise great responsibility. For that knowledge to have any value, it is our responsibility to affect the largest audience by communicating as widely as we possibly can.
The scientific knowledge we discover does not belong to us—we just had it first. We can honor that knowledge best by sharing it widely using the most creative means at our disposal.
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In 2014, researchers at the University of Warwick in England announced they had found a strong association between a gene mutation identified with happiness and well-being. It’s called 5-HTTLPR and it affects the way our body metabolizes the neurotransmitter serotonin, which helps regulate our moods, sex drives, and appetites. The study asks why some nations, notably Denmark, consistently top “happiness indexes,” and wonders whether there may be a connection between a nation and the genetic makeup of its people. Sure enough, controlling for work status, religion, age, gender, and income, the researchers discovered those with Danish DNA had a distinct genetic advantage in well-being. In other words, the more Danish DNA one has, the more likely he or she will report being happy.
This tantalizing piece of research is not the only example of the power of feel-good genes. One body of research suggests we are genetically pre-programmed with a happiness “set point”—a place on the level of life satisfaction to which, in the absence of a fresh triumph or disappointment, our mood seems to return as surely as a homing pigeon to its base. As much as 50 percent of this set point, some researchers have demonstrated, is determined genetically at birth. The genetic determinants of a higher set point may be what the Danes are blessed with.
Neuroscientists are also studying a gene variant that leads to higher levels of a brain chemical called anandamide, which contributes to a sense of calm. Individuals with mutations that cause them to make less of an enzyme that metabolizes anandamide are less prone to trudge through life with the weight of the world on their shoulders. In 2015, Richard A. Friedman, a professor of clinical psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College, lamented in a New York Times op-ed “that we are all walking around with a random and totally unfair assortment of genetic variants that make us more or less content, anxious, depressed or prone to use drugs.” “What we really need,” Friedman continued, “is a drug that can boost anandamide—our bliss molecule—for those who are genetically disadvantaged. Stay tuned.”
“Close relationships and social connections keep you happy and healthy. Basically, humans are wired for personal connections.”
Some scientists have already tuned in to the future. James J. Hughes, a sociologist, author, and futurist at Hartford’s Trinity College, envisions a day not too far from now when we will unravel the genetic determinants of key neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin, and be able to manipulate happiness genes—if not 5-HTTLPR then something like it—with precise nanoscale technologies that marry robotics and traditional pharmacology. These “mood bots,” once ingested, will travel directly to specific areas of the brain, flip on genes, and manually turn up or down our happiness set point, coloring the way we experience circumstances around us. “As nanotechnology becomes more precise, we’re going to be able to affect mood in increasingly precise ways in ordinary people,” says Hughes, who also serves as executive director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, and authored the 2004 book Citizen Cyborg: Why Democratic Societies Must Respond to the Redesigned Human of the Future.
It would be easy to conclude the redesigned human of the future will be able to pop a mood bot and live in bliss. But not so fast, say psychologists, sociologists, and neurologists who study happiness. Just because scientists have decoded some of the underlying biology of this ineffable state of being, paving the way for a drug to stimulate it, does not guarantee that our great-great-grandchildren will live happy and satisfying lives. Human nature is more than biology, the scientists assure us. And generations of happiness research offer a clear window into what it takes to live a long and satisfying life.
TOGETHER: Strong personal relationships lead to better health outcomes, and can shift the architecture of the brain. (Constance Bannister Corp / Getty)
The squishiness of the term “happiness” has long caused problems for those who study it. To gauge happiness and sidestep semantic problems, many of the psychologists who have tried to quantify it have used a measure called “Subjective Well-Being.” This measure, as its name implies, relies on individuals themselves to tell researchers how happy they are. Ed Diener, a University of Virginia psychologist nicknamed “Dr. Happiness,” pioneered the approach in the 1980s. Today, Diener serves as a senior scientist at The Gallup Organization, which provides a key survey used in happiness indexes put out by most groups compiling such lists, including the United Nations.
But in recent years, a growing number of researchers have begun to acknowledge that this isn’t a particularly good fix; maybe a little more refinement is needed. What we really mean when we tell a researcher from a place like Gallup that we are “happy” can vary widely. If you ask a teenager or young adult to rate his happiness, he’s liable to base his answer on his weekend plans, how much money he has in his pocket, and how his peers treated him during lunch break. If you ask somebody with a little more mileage—someone with children, for instance—they are liable to look at a bigger picture, even if they have a bad back that’s been acting up, no babysitter for Saturday, and an appointment that afternoon for a colonoscopy.
Over the past decade or so, a growing number of researchers have begun to rethink exactly what happiness is and distinguish between two types: “hedonic” happiness, that positive mental high, and “eudaimonic” happiness. Aristotle was referring to this second kind when he wrote 2,300 years ago: “Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.” This is the kind of happiness that qualifies a life well-lived, time on this planet well-spent. Medical technology may soon be able to engineer a momentary absence of fear, or the presence of a moment-to-moment sense of well-being, but engineering this second kind of happiness would be far more difficult.
Daniel Gilbert, a Harvard psychologist and author of the best-selling Stumbling On Happiness, suggests humans are already hardwired to raise their own hedonistic happiness, and we’re pretty good at it, without resorting to mood bots. Gilbert has spent his career studying the way we convince ourselves to accept our external circumstances, and return to a hedonic equilibrium, no matter what comes.
In a 2004 TED talk, Gilbert powerfully demonstrates this by displaying two pictures side by side. The picture on the left depicts a man in a black cowboy hat holding up an oversized lottery check. He has just won $314.9 million. The picture on the right displays another man, approximately the same age, sitting in a wheelchair, being pushed up a ramp. “Here are two different futures that I invite you to contemplate, and you can try to simulate them and tell me which one you think you might prefer,” Gilbert says to the audience. Data exists, he assures them, on how happy groups of lottery winners and paraplegics are. The fact is, a year after losing the use of their legs, and a year after winning the lotto, lottery winners are only slightly happier with their lives than paraplegics are.
The findings are unequivocal: Online connection decreases depression, reduces loneliness, and increases levels of perceived social support.
The reason people fail to appreciate that both groups are equally happy is a counterintuitive phenomenon that Gilbert calls “impact bias,” a tendency to overestimate the hedonic impact of future events. We see this tendency, he notes, with winning or not winning an election, gaining or losing a romantic partner, winning or not winning a promotion, passing or not passing a college exam. All these events “have far less impact, far less intensity, and for much less duration than people expect them to have.”
It’s that happiness set point again, returning to its base. But surely some things affect happiness? In fact, Gilbert tells Nautilus, “Much of our happiness is produced by things that have long evolutionary histories. I will place any wager that in 2045 people are still happy when they see their children prosper, when they taste chocolate, when they feel loved, secure, and well fed.”
These are the “staples of happiness,” he continues. “It would take an evolutionary change on the order of species to even consider the possibility that those would change too. This question could have been posed a few years ago, 300 years ago, 2,000 years ago. It would never have been wrong to say, ‘You are the most social animal on Earth, invest in your social relationships, it will be a form of happiness.’ ” It’s an answer that is so obvious that most people dismiss it.
“There is utterly no secret about the kind of things that make people happy,” Gilbert says. “But if you list them for people, they go, ‘Yeah, that kind of sounds like what my rabbi, grandmother, my philosopher have said all along. What’s the secret?’ The answer is there is no secret. They were right.”
erhaps the most compelling evidence on the importance of relationships stems from a study of a cohort of people who are today mostly grandparents themselves. The information is stored in a cramped room in downtown Boston, lined with file cabinets that hold the details of one of the most comprehensive longitudinal studies on the development of healthy, male adults ever compiled: the Harvard Study of Adult Development, previously known as the Grant Study in Social Adjustments.
In 1938, researchers began conducting tests and interviewing carefully selected college sophomores from the all-male Harvard classes of 1939, 1940, and 1941. The men were chosen not because they had problems that made them likely to fail, but because they showed promise. (The cohort included, among others, future president John F. Kennedy and Ben Bradlee, who would lead the Washington Post during Watergate.) The original intent was to follow these men, who seemed destined for success, for perhaps 15 to 20 years. Today, more than 75 years later, the study is still going. Thirty of the original 268 men in the study are still alive.
In 1967, the files were merged with the Glueck Study, a similar effort that included a second group of 456 poor, non-delinquent, white kids who grew up in Boston’s inner city in the early 1940s. Of those, about 80 are still around, though the ones that aren’t lived, on average, nine years less than those in the Harvard cohort.
In 2009, the study’s longest-serving former director George Vaillant was asked by Joshua Wolf Shenk of The Atlantic what he considered the most important finding of the Grant study since its inception. “The only thing that really matters in life are your relations to other people,” he responded.
After Shenk’s article came out, Vaillant found himself under attack from skeptics around the globe. In response, Vaillant created what he called the “Decathlon of Flourishing,” which included a list of 10 accomplishments in late life (60-80) that might be considered success. They included earning an income in the study’s top quartile, recognition in Who’s Who in America, low psychological distress, success and enjoyment in work, love, and play since age 65, good physical and mental health, social support other than wife and kids, a good marriage, and a close relationship with kids.
High scores in all of these categories turned out to be highly correlated with one another. But of all the factors he looked at, only four were highly correlated with success on all the measures, and those all had to do with relationships. Once again, he proved that it was the capacity for intimate relationships that predicted success in all aspects of the men’s lives.
“Mood bots,” once ingested, will travel directly to specific areas of the brain, flip on genes, and manually turn up or down happiness.
However, Vaillant, who detailed his findings in the 2012 book Triumphs of Experience, objects to the term “happiness.” “The most important thing in happiness is to get the word out of your vocabulary,” he says. “The point is that a great deal of happiness is simply hedonism and I feel OK today because I’ve just had a Big Mac or a good bowel movement. That has very little to do with a sense of well-being. The secret to well-being is experiencing positive emotions.” And the secret to that, Vaillant argues, might sound trite. But you can’t argue with the facts. The secret is love.
“In the 1960s and ’70s, I would have been laughed at,” to suggest such a thing, Vaillant says. “But here I was finding hard data to support the fact that your relationships are the most important single thing in your well-being. It’s been gratifying to find support for something as sentimental as love.”
Robert Waldinger, the psychiatrist and Harvard Medical School professor who currently leads the study, notes that it is not just measures of material success and psychological feelings of well-being that are linked to good relationships. It’s also physical health.
“The biggest take home from a lot of this, is that the quality of people’s relationships are way more important than what we thought they were—not just for emotional well-being but also for physical health,” he says. Marital happiness at age 50, he says, is a more important predictor of physical health at 80 than cholesterol levels at 50. “Close relationships and social connections keep you happy and healthy. That is the bottom line. People who were more concerned with achievement or less concerned with connection were less happy. Basically, humans are wired for personal connections.”
Not only did strong personal relationships lead to better health outcomes, it affected the architecture of the brain. People who feel socially isolated get sicker earlier, their brains decay earlier, their memories are worse, Waldinger says. Using brain-scan technologies, Waldinger and his team discovered that those who were most satisfied with their lives had greater brain connectivity. Their brains lit up more robustly when they looked at visual images than people who were less satisfied.
“The people who were most engaged were the happiest,” Waldinger says. “They could be raising kids, they could be planting a garden, they could be running a corporation. If you really care about something, if it means something to you, and particularly if you have meaningful engagement with other people when you do these things—those are the things that light you up.”
Even Nicholas Christakis, a Yale sociologist, who coauthored a seminal study of twins that demonstrated a 33 percent variation in life satisfaction could be attributed to the 5-HTTLPR gene, agrees that the key component to happiness is social. “I’m very skeptical that technological advances will affect what I regard as foundational features of human nature,” he says. “So I don’t think that any technological developments or futuristic things are going to fundamentally affect our capacity for happiness.”
Christakis, who studies social networks, says the influence of genes like 5-HTTLPR on happiness is less direct than a straight subjective feeling of well-being (though that may be part of it). Instead, he suggests, it’s their effect on our behavior that may be key—and the effect that has on our relationships. “It’s not just what genes do inside our body, how they modify our neurophysiology or transmitters, but what genes do outside our body, how they affect how many friends you make, or whether you will pick happy or sad friends, which also affects happiness,” Christakis says. “Even if you have genes that predispose you to pick happy friends, the unavailability of them may make you unhappy.”
DIGITAL BOND: Some scholars now argue that social media and the Internet draw people close together, enhancing already existing relationships. (Hero Images)
enerations of happiness research, stressing the importance of personal relationships, drops us into the middle of a surprisingly contemporary debate. We live in an increasingly networked society, and the rate of us in social networks, and the amount of time we spend online, continues to grow each year. Vaillant, of the longitudinal Harvard study, has no hesitation in saying what our lives online are doing to us.
“Technology drives us up into our cortex away from our heart,” he says. “What makes the world go round is not technology. It’s not having a better and better iPhone; I’ve got a fancy new phone and I just hate it. The technology is just going to distract us back into our heads so that my daughter feels it’s cooler to text someone than it is to talk to them on the telephone. That doesn’t bode well for happiness in 2050.”
The fears of a dystopian new world, where we all text at the dinner table and have problems making eye contact, were perhaps most articulately summed up by Sherry Turkle, professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology in the science, technology, and society program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She explores the paradox of how technology connects us, yet also makes us lonelier, in her 2011 book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other.
“Human relationships are rich and they’re messy and they’re demanding,” she argues passionately in a 2012 TED talk. “And we clean them up with technology. And when we do, one of the things that can happen is that we sacrifice conversation for mere connection. We short-change ourselves. And over time, we seem to forget this, or we seem to stop caring.”
Some of the earliest studies on the use of the Internet and technology supported the idea that the networked age was driving us toward a sad, lonely future. In a groundbreaking 1998 study, Robert E. Kraut, a researcher at Carnegie Mellon University, recruited volunteer families with high-school-aged children, gave them computers and Internet access, and then tracked their usage. The more his participants used the Internet, he found, the more their depression increased, and the more social support and other measures of psychological well-being declined.
Since then there have been other negative studies and a spate of bad press. One widely cited 2012 study conducted by researchers at Utah Valley University of 425 undergraduates found that the more they used Facebook, the more they felt that others were happier and had better lives than they did. The researchers named the study, “They Are Happier and Having Better Lives Than I Am: The Impact of Using Facebook on Perceptions of Others’ Lives.”
Even the Vatican has expressed concern. In 2011, Pope Benedict XVI warned in one of his messages to the world that “virtual contact cannot and must not take the place of direct human contact.”
But in recent years, a more nuanced consensus has begun to emerge—a consensus that suggests technology is not such a bad thing for human relationships. Carnegie Mellon’s Kraut now argues that his 1998 study might tell us about the present. The problem, he says, was there were comparatively fewer people on the Internet at the time. The individuals who participated in his study were forced to communicate with people they did not know in far-flung places, what Kraut calls “weak ties.” “What we realized is that by necessity they had to talk to relative strangers,” he says. “But that was the early days. Now virtually everybody you know is online.”
Kraut’s more recent research has found that today most people spend their time online communicating with people with whom they already have strong ties. In those cases, he argues, the findings are unequivocal: Online connection decreases depression, reduces loneliness, and increases levels of perceived social support.
It does so by enhancing offline relationships. Online interactions, like offline ones, are more fulfilling if they are with people with whom we have strong ties. They mean a lot less if they are with strangers. But most of us use technologies to communicate with people we already know. And that helps relationships grow stronger. “Communication online has the same beneficial effects that communication offline would have if we already know people,” Kraut says.
Keith Hampton, an associate professor of communication and public policy communication at Rutgers University, has conducted a number of studies in collaboration with the Pew Research Center measuring the effects of Internet use on relationships, democracy, and social supports. The idea that we interact either online or offline, he argues, is a false dichotomy. Through his studies, he too has become convinced that social media and the Internet are drawing us closer together—online and off. “I don’t think it’s people moving online, I think it’s people adding the digital mode of communication to already existing relationships,” he says.
In fact, his research has found that the more different kinds of media that people use to interact, the stronger their relationships tend to be. People who don’t just talk on the phone but also see each other, and email each other and communicate through four or five different mediums, tend to have stronger relationships with one another than those who communicate through fewer mediums, he has found.
Facebook, he argues, is fundamentally changing the nature of relationships in ways that have been lost since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, when people began leaving their native villages behind to head to cities for new opportunities, and lost contact with the people they grew up with. “Thanks to social media, those types of relationships are persistent,” he says. “Now we may be connecting with people over the course of life that we didn’t before.”
Of course, Facebook and technology, Hampton argues, are not sufficient in their own right to fend off loneliness. But in conjunction with other modes of interaction, they can bolster existing relationships, contribute to diverse relationships, and keep dormant relationships alive. The overall effect of technology is to overcome the constraints of time and location that would have proven insurmountable before. Instead of Christmas cards, we get a constant stream of information. We can share in triumphs and know when to offer solace during tragedy. We are less isolated.
Hampton has heard the assertions by Turkle and others that technology is atomizing us and killing traditional interactions. So he decided to examine that contention too. In a 2014 article in the journalUrban Studies, Hampton and collaborators reported that they had studied four films taken in public spaces over the course of the last 30 years. For their study they observed and coded the behavior and characteristics of 143,593 people. They analyzed that behavior to see if, in fact, we really are “alone together” in a crowd.
In fact, Hampton found the opposite. There was, in the same public spaces, a notable increase in the numbers of people interacting in large groups. And despite the ubiquity of mobile phones, the rate of their use in public was relatively small, especially when individuals were walking with others. Mobile phones appeared “most often in spaces where people might otherwise be walking alone,” he wrote. “This suggests that, when framed as a communication tool, mobile phone use is associated with reduced public isolation, although it is associated with an increased likelihood to linger and with time spent lingering in public.”
None of this surprises Amy Zalman, president and CEO of the World Future Society, who spends her days organizing conferences, conducting research, and speaking with people who try to predict what society might look like a few decades in the future. She expects that technological tools to pursue human relationships will continue to evolve in unexpected ways. But she doesn’t expect them to change human nature. Human relating, she argues, has always been a highly mediated activity—even language can be seen as a tool on the same spectrum as technologies like social media or cell phones, a spectrum of tools we use to interface with others. It’s just that we notice these tools more. But that too will change. “Technology is going to get closer and closer, it’s going to get invasive—we are going to wear it; it’s going to be inside of us—and then it’s going to disappear and we are not even going to notice it,” Zalman says.
Some futurists believe we may plug into a matrix and communicate through a hive mind. Or perhaps we will relate through personal avatars, robots that resemble us, which we occupy remotely. Maybe our brains will be uploaded to computers. But whatever happens, in the end, the verities of happiness will remain the same as they were in the days of Aristotle. It’s never a mistake to go out and play, make friends, make love, and make an impact on society. Happiness is and has always been about our relationships with other people.
Adam Piore is a freelance writer based in New York.