A hundred years of further studies have confirmed Durkheim’s diagnosis. If you want to predict how happy someone is, or how long she will live (and if you are not allowed to ask about her genes or personality), you should find out about her social relationships. Having strong social relationships strengthens the immune system, extends life (more than does quitting smoking), speeds recovery from surgery, and reduces the risks of depression and anxiety disorders. It’s not just that extroverts are naturally happier and healthier; when introverts are forced to be more outgoing, they usually enjoy it and find that it boosts their mood. Even people who think they don’t want a lot of social contact still benefit from it. And it’s not just that “we all need somebody to lean on”; recent work on giving support shows that caring for others is often more beneficial than is receiving help. We need to interact and intertwine with others; we need the give and the take; we need to belong. An ideology of extreme personal freedom can be dangerous because it encourages people to leave homes, jobs, cities, and marriages in search of personal and professional fulfillment, thereby breaking the relationships that were probably their best hope for such fulfillment.
Seneca was right: “No one can live happily who has regard to himself alone and transforms everything into a question of his own utility.”
John Donne was right: “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.”
Aristophanes was right: We need others to complete us. We are an ultrasocial species, full of emotions finely tuned for loving, befriending, helping, sharing, and otherwise intertwining our lives with others. Attachments and relationships can bring us pain: As a character in Jean-Paul Sartre’s play No Exit said, “Hell is other people.” But so is heaven.