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What is the value of real-world social interactions?


The woman sitting opposite me on the #4 Powell bus is wearing a leather bomber jacket and stylized Armani glasses. Her fingers are crossed over the wooden handle of a corduroy shoulder bag. The words “PURL” and “KNIT” are tattooed across her knuckles in the same gothic lettering that Tupac Shakur used to tattoo “OUTLAW” on his forearm. I’m about to talk to someone who is, apparently, a gangster knitter.

I’m conducting an experiment designed by Canada’s top subjective well-being researcher, Dr. John Helliwell. My assignment: to record my level of happiness and then get on a bus and initiate a conversation with a stranger. When I get off the bus, I will record my happiness level again. Helliwell’s research has proven that the more positive social interactions we have, the higher our happiness levels. To test this claim, I have decided that my subjective happiness level is six out of ten. If Dr. Helliwell is correct, a conversation with the gangster knitter will raise my happiness level to seven.

I throw my best “what’s up?” look across the aisle, but the gangster knitter’s gaze, hooded by thick brown lashes, is fixed out the window. Her gaze drifts to the Full Throttle energy drink advertisement above my head, to the floor, to the yellow safety bars near the back door. I remember what Helliwell told me. “On a bus you think, ‘I’m being nice to these people by not invading their space.’ But research tells me that, in fact, if we shared a little more space, they’d be happier and I’d be happier. So who’s the loser?”

Ten minutes later, the bus pulls up to my stop. At the door I turn and say, “I like your tattoos.” She removes her iPod buds and looks up at me (hazel eyes. I love hazel eyes). “Thank you,” she says, a smile dancing at the edges of her lips. As the bus pulls away from the curb, I record a happiness level of seven into my logbook.[1]


Dr. John Helliwell is the person who discovered the cash value of job satisfaction. (It takes a 40 percent increase in salary to counter balance a ten percent drop in job satisfaction). His research has also shown that good governance is the most influential variable explaining happiness levels in different countries: the more trustworthy your government, the greater your chances of being happy. “The social context of well-being,” he tells me. “That’s my schtick.”

It all started back in the 1990s when Helliwell became involved with the revolutionary field of social capital. Unlike mainstream economics, which assumes that well-being can be sufficiently measured by the production and distribution of goods and services, well-being researchers use direct measures of life satisfaction to discover the importance of social as well as economic circumstances. Thus Helliwell and other students of well-being ask, “How happy are individuals and societies, and why?”

One agency that collects data on subjective well-being is the World Values Survey Association (WVSA), a nonprofit collection of social scientists based in Stockholm. They claim to have polled over 350,000 people in countries home to 90 percent of the world’s population. Their survey, called the World Values Survey (WVS), asks respondents to gauge their life satisfaction. “All things considered,” the survey asks, “how satisfied are you with your life as a whole these days?” Through 250 cognitive and affect questions, scientific data and mathematical wizardry, the survey measures happiness on a four-point scale, one being “very happy,” two being “rather happy,” three being “not very happy” and four being “not at all happy.” Helliwell and other researchers use this data to shed light on human behavior and society. The findings have even influenced public policy.

For simplicity’s sake, I decided to use a ten-point scale (ten being high) instead of a four-point scale and clocked my own happiness level at six. As soon as I started considering my own happiness, a red danger light whirred up in my head. I wanted my number to be higher than the world average (five). I wrote down a six not because I necessarily felt I was a six, but because six was modestly, yet safely, above the world average.

#7 Nanaimo Station bus, February 23

Crossing north on Vancouver’s Granville Bridge, I engage four different strangers in a conversation about our bus’s destination. “Do we turn right on West Pender or on West Hastings?” [2] Amazingly, four people volunteer very helpful answers. Two minutes later I’m learning about software interfacing from my delightful neighbor with jet-black hair. My happiness level again blips up to a seven.

The Great $20 Experiment

“Defining happiness is like defining yellow,” explains University of British Columbia (UBC) psychologist Elizabeth Dunn. She’s referencing Daniel Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness. “We all know what yellow is,” she continues. “Asked if this is yellow, we can identify it. But asked to explain it, we get a little tongue-tied.” Psychologists approach the question of ranking happiness levels very similarly to the WVS. “The emotional component,” Dunn explains, “is how often do you experience positive feelings, and how often do you experience negative feelings?” The cognitive component asks, “looking at your life, how satisfied do you feel with it?”

In 2008 Dunn wanted to know if money could buy happiness. She gave a group of UBC students $5 or $20 and instructed them to spend the money on themselves. She gave another group of students the same amount of money and told them to spend it on others, in what Dunn calls “pro-social spending.” The next morning, subjects were asked how happy they felt. Those who spent the money on others were overwhelmingly happier. (A correlation study was conducted with people spending their own money and the results were congruent. The study is also being replicated in Uganda, and the authors expect similar findings.) “If you use your money to promote social goals,” Dunn explains, “it can make you happier.” Dunn also found that the amount of money, $5 or $20, is inconsequential.

The really mind-boggling results came when participants were invited to predict the outcome of the survey. People thought that spending money on themselves would make them happier when, in fact, spending money on others is what makes them happier.

99 B-Line bus, March 14

I’m sitting opposite a punk wearing a studded leather jacket, sporting a gelled Mohawk and reading Dante’s Divine Comedy. He seems interesting, but I’m too afraid to talk to him, to tell him I like his hair or ask if the Divine Comedy is good. Then I notice this other guy in a ball cap and T-shirt trying to make eye contact with me. He looks like the kind of guy that rides buses looking for people to talk to. I ignore him and start reading the Richmond Automall advertisement above his head. The punk to my left pulls out a baggie of snap peas and starts eating them like potato chips. Then the man in the ball cap says, “snap peas?” “Yeah,” the punk answers. “That’s a really good idea. I should do that sometime.” The punk looks up and they make eye contact. “They’re amazing,” says the punk. “They’re so sweet. Sometimes, it’s like I’m eating fruit.”

For the rest of the journey into East Vancouver, the guy throws me these glances from under his ball cap, inviting me into their conversation. What do I do? I focus my attention on the Richmond Automall advertisement. Why is it so hard to talk to strangers when research shows that it will make me happier? Why not risk a simple “hello” that could nudge me into the sevens? I suggest to Elizabeth Dunn that humans act counterintuitively in the chase for happiness. They spend money on themselves instead of each other. They sit quietly on buses instead of talking to their neighbors. “There are two different mental systems that underlie a lot of our behavior,” she explains. “So you can recognize on an intellectual level that you shouldn’t eat lots of fatty foods and you should give a lot of money to charity, and then somehow you end up eating potato chips in front of your flat-screen TV. We recognize the value of something but we don’t feel it. We don’t internalize it.”

The Social Capital Theme Song

I revisit Helliwell to discuss my experiment. I tell him that even though my happiness consistently increased, I continue to struggle to start conversations with strangers on buses, to push myself beyond my baseline level of happiness to achieve that delicious seven. Helliwell smiles and tells me about a recent conference at Toronto’s Massey College. He got on stage in front of hundreds of fellow economists and sang an a cappella version of what he and his friends call “the social capitalist theme song.” Without warning, he starts to sing: “The more we get together, the happier we’ll be. Because your friends are my friends and my friends are your friends. The more …” He stops mid-sentence and focuses on me from behind his metal-rimmed glasses. “If the audience just sits there like you are, grinning, then I stop. And I say, ‘You don’t get it.’ The whole point is it’s not about me singing to you. It’s not about being amused. It’s not about being entertained. It’s about us singing the song together. It’s doing things together that makes us happy.”

Back on the #4 Powell I realize that talking to the gangster knitter didn’t just make me happier, it probably made her happier as well. Happiness is symbiotic. There is movement at the front of the bus. A woman in ankle boots carrying an oxblood shoulder bag gets on and, despite the absence of the driver, she swipes her bus pass and the machine beeps. She is walking towards me. She might not know it yet, but we each have something the other wants.

[1] Before I wrote the seven, I experienced an increased heart rate, an increased body temperature and an observed opening of my sweat glands. These symptoms are also congruent with increased anxiety and the surge of endorphins you experience after achieving a perceived goal. These symptoms were not duplicated in later experiments. Instead I would come to know the happiness level of seven by the pinprick of light left behind on my heart. [2] I should note that asking my subjects mundane questions was normally counterproductive to my research. On a #4 Powell ride, which had the atmosphere of a funeral chapel, I said, “quiet bus, huh?” to the one person without an iPod. He peered through me and then returned his gaze to his hands, which were lying unused on his lap.

Ian Bullock is a Vancouver freelance writer who is at work on his first novel. Lately his happiness levels have been blipping into the eights.

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