The Business of Good Friends
Business Journal

The Business of Good Friends

by Jennifer Robison

Socializing is good for wellbeing -- your employees' and your company's

As Tom Rath and Jim Harter were completing their groundbreaking research into wellbeing, they made a discovery that startled them both: To have a thriving sense of daily wellbeing, people need up to six hours a day of social interaction. Yes, six hours.

To have a good day, people need to spend six hours per day socializing.

"A person needs to spend six hours a day socializing to have a good day," says Rath, who leads Gallup's workplace and leadership consulting practice and coauthored Wellbeing: The Five Essential Elements with Harter, Gallup's chief scientist of workplace management and wellbeing. "Still, that kind of scared both of us introverted researchers, so we dug into the data pretty intensively to figure out how this could be. We found that even introverted personality types have more happy moments and fewer stressful moments when they spend at least five hours a day socializing with others."

Rath and Harter weren't the only ones wondering how anyone could manage to spend a quarter of every 24-hour period socializing. "We get a lot of follow-up questions when we're presenting these findings to clients," Harter says. "They'll ask if social time via technology counts, if social time has to be in person, whether social time can mean a chat in the hallway -- those kinds of questions." The reason Harter gets such questions is because socializing is a vital part of wellbeing, and wellbeing is a vital part of living and working.


Rath and Harter's original research into wellbeing included a thorough review of decades of scientific research and a comprehensive global study of more than 150 countries, which gave them insights into the wellbeing of more than 98% of the world's population. Among their conclusions is that wellbeing is more complicated than most of us thought. (See sidebar "The Five Essential Elements of Wellbeing.)

The Five Essential Elements of Wellbeing

For more than 50 years, Gallup scientists have been exploring the demands of a life well-lived. More recently, in partnership with leading economists, psychologists, and other acclaimed scientists, Gallup has uncovered the common elements of wellbeing that transcend countries and cultures. This research revealed the universal elements of wellbeing that differentiate a thriving life from one spent suffering. They represent five broad categories that are essential to most people:

When you're doing well in these five areas, your wellbeing is "thriving" (or strong, consistent, and progressing). If you're not, your wellbeing is "struggling" (moderate or inconsistent) or "suffering" (at high risk). Gallup has found that while 66% of people are doing well in at least one of these areas, only 7% of people are thriving in all five. That leaves a lot of room for improvement in the wellbeing of the other 93%, and it left the researchers with some lingering questions.

"After doing all the research, we knew a lot about Social Wellbeing, but we hadn't yet done an in-depth study of how people use their social time -- what they do, who it's with, how they feel, and whether there are differences across age groups and gender," Harter says. "Clearly, we needed to do more research."

Grandma and the tube

And research they did, starting a second study that included more than 17,000 U.S. adults who volunteered to report on exactly what they were doing and the mood they were in while doing it. The researchers sorted the responses into four age categories: Millennials, aged 18 to 30; Generation X, aged 31 to 46; Baby Boomers, aged 47 to 65; and Traditionalists, aged 66 and older. Then they broke the day into three time categories: 12:00 a.m. to 7:59 a.m., 8:00 a.m. to 3:59 p.m., and 4:00 p.m. to 11:59 p.m.

They found that hardly anyone gets together with friends in the middle of the night and that everyone but Traditionalists prefers to socialize in the evening. Most of the people born after 1965 are in the thick of their working lives and can't ditch work during the day to take in a ballgame. "And after a long workday, perhaps Traditionalists lack the energy for evening activities," says Sangeeta Agrawal, a Gallup senior workplace researcher who, with Harter, analyzed the data for this study.

There are generational differences in whom people choose to spend time with too. Millennials socialize with more people and with more types of friends, including nonwork friends, siblings, parents, roommates, work friends or colleagues, and supervisors. At the other end of the spectrum, Traditionalists tend to confine their social circle to neighbors, grandchildren, and nonwork friends. Members of Generation X and Baby Boomers spend much their time with friends at work, colleagues, work supervisors, children (Generation X), or grandchildren (Baby Boomers).

Millennials incorporate text messaging, instant messaging, and social networking into their social time.

And what are we doing with our friends? That too has a lot to do with age. Members of all four groups report that they socialize over food or drinks, but Millennials incorporate a variety of electronic activities into their social time, including text messaging, instant messaging, and social networking. Members of the oldest group report that they talk on the phone, watch TV with others, email, or exercise with others. The groups in the middle tend to spend their social time on the phone.

This breakdown could lead the nonscientific community to the conclusion that when Generation X kids were told to turn off the TV and go outside, it was because their parents wanted to commandeer the TV. "That's one theory, and one I can relate to," Harter says. "But it's probably also true that older generations are more accustomed to TV as a social event and are benefitting from that social interaction."

Social time benefits

And "benefit" is the crux of the social interaction issue. Humans are social creatures, and we need other people for our own wellbeing, as the original wellbeing research demonstrates. Yet certain social interactions in certain places and with certain people are more beneficial than others.

All age groups report that the more social time in their day, the better the day -- up to a point. The greatest gain in mood comes from using 20%-40% of "awake time" socially; Gallup found no gain in mood above 60%. And the more people you spend time with, the better -- but again, up to a point. Your mood jumps considerably by meeting with one person, then slight gains are made with each additional person you socialize with. On average, however, increases in mood begin to diminish when you socialize with more than three people.

The kind of people you socialize with also have an impact on your mood. Gallup found that overall, positive mood increases were more closely associated with nonwork friends than with colleagues; that Traditionalists experience an increase in positive mood when they spend time with their grandchildren; and that Millennials get a mood boost from their roommates, but the other generations don't.

What you do with your social group also matters to your mood. Planned events of any sort tend to improve mood more than simple verbal exchanges, and Harter and Agrawal think that might be because planned events give participants a pleasurable sense of anticipation.

"Not all social time counts the same. In-person time counts more," Harter says. "But in-person time isn't as much about the total amount of time spent as the event itself: exercising together, having dinner together -- that kind of thing matters more than the total amount of time spent."

This doesn't mean that technology-assisted social time doesn't count. If the sight of people constantly tip-tapping away at their phones bothers you, you're probably not a Millennial. If you are a Millennial, you may be too busy tip-tapping to notice any disapproving looks from others -- and if you're not a Millennial, you may think that technology is a substitute for in-person communication.

Actually, it's not. Millennials spend more face time with their friends than any other age group, followed closely by Generation X. Furthermore, Traditionalists are the most likely to socialize on email, while Millennials are the most likely to socialize by text messaging. Both groups get a mood boost from texting, though when Millennials find they're spending 75% or more of their social time with a tiny keyboard, their mood drops.

As for social networking sites, all age groups enjoy them -- Generation X more than the other groups. And while everyone likes talking on the phone, no one gets a mood boost from it forever. Most people find talking on the phone draining when it consumes more than 50% of their social time.

The social interaction mostly likely to provoke a better mood was exercise. All age groups get a boost from exercising with someone else, especially Traditionalists. This is good news: Exercise is a component of Physical Wellbeing, so those who get to chat with friends while working out are simultaneously boosting wellbeing in two dimensions.

At the water cooler

What about people who chat with friends at work? Career Wellbeing is an essential element of overall wellbeing. Does socializing at work do more than just kill time?

Companies can provide opportunities for positive socializing.

"Clients often ask about socializing at work. It's an important question," Agrawal says. She notes that one the items from Gallup's employee engagement measure is "I have a best friend at work." "Obviously, there's a social component to that. They also wonder if engagement and wellbeing affect each other," she says.

They do, and in various ways. Engaged workers are more likely to have high wellbeing: 60% of engaged workers report having thriving wellbeing. But the percentage drops to 47% among workers who are not engaged and to 28% among those who are actively disengaged. Companies with thriving employees not only benefit from a greater likelihood of engagement, they reap the reward of healthy, productive workers.

For instance, Gallup found that in the U.S., the average sick day costs a business about $348 in lost productivity. Employees who have the highest wellbeing scores cost their employers an average $840 a year in lost productivity. Employees who are in the midpoint of the struggling category cost their companies $6,168 annually, and the annual per-person cost of lost productivity due to sick days is $28,800 for those with the lowest wellbeing scores.

For cost savings like that, it might be worth encouraging conversations around the water cooler -- but companies will benefit most if the employees are already engaged. "Socializing at work can change your thinking," Agrawal says. "If you socialize with workers who are not engaged, then conversations or moods can turn negative. If you hear more positive things, then you start thinking more positively."

In fact, Agrawal and Harter found that social time at work is associated with higher positive and higher negative mood. They say that's partly because people may be more likely to socialize in what psychologists call "higher affect states." In other words, when exciting news hits, their first thought is to discuss it with a colleague, not buckle down to do those expense reports -- and sometimes, those high affect states are negative.

Workplace conversations can just as easily take a turn for the positive and productive, however. "Many times, just seeing someone in the hall can lead to a very helpful conversation," Harter says. "When all the other wellbeing and engagement elements are going right, social interactions can help the organization improve, to be more innovative."

Organizations can't control the tone of socializing at work; there aren't enough managers in the world to locate and redirect every downbeat conversation. Moreover, talking isn't the same thing as socializing -- if it were, we'd all live in hope of getting a call from a telemarketer -- so every interaction won't contribute to Social Wellbeing. What companies can do, however, is set the stage for wellbeing by providing opportunities for positive socializing.

Harter and Agrawal suggest little things and a lot of them: Start meetings with chatting about life outside of work, sponsor get-togethers inside and outside the office, or organize lunchtime walks. "Just create opportunities. They don't have to be costly, and not everybody's going to like every opportunity that's presented," Harter says. "But if you make opportunities to socialize, people will."

Survey Methods

Results are based on a Gallup Panel study consisting of Web surveys completed by 17,719 U.S. adults, aged 18 and older. The study was conducted in February 2011. Gallup Panel members are recruited through random selection methods. The panel is weighted so that it is demographically representative of the U.S. adult population. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±1.35 percentage points. Margins of sampling errors vary for individual subsamples. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

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