Heaps of research suggest that social relationships make people happier—but which relationships, specifically? A guilt-ridden afternoon with a mother-in-law might not have the same effect as drinks with a best friend. A “fair-weather friend” stands by your side only during good times.
Recently a group of researchers set out to determine whose company we actually seek out when we’re happy or unhappy. Their findings, published this month in the journal Psychological Science, suggest that when times are actually good, the people we turn to aren’t friends at all. They’re strangers.
The study’s authors looked at the moods and social interactions of more than 30,000 people, most of whom were French, over the course of a month. The data were collected through an app called 58 Seconds, which would text the participants at various times of the day and ask them to type in how they were feeling, what they were doing, and whom they were with, if anyone.
The researchers were then able to examine how the participants’ happiness related to the types of people they would spend time with a few hours after their responses, and how those interactions subsequently appeared to make them feel. To isolate the effects of different company—including friends, relatives, and strangers—the researchers controlled for characteristics that naturally caused fluctuations in the participants’ happiness, such as not being a morning person, as well as the types of activities the participants would engage in. (Going for a hike might make someone feel better than going to a meeting, after all, regardless of who joins you.)