Consumer driven companies should look to the human need for connection

| November 30, 2015

When technology connects people in a way that enables real interpersonal relationships, it has vast potential to increase happiness. Michelle Dixon takes us on a journey from connection over collaboration to community.

What do you think makes people happy?

Go on, have a guess.

Financial security? Health? One might think that the most basic ‘survival’ needs are those which humans long for most deeply in order to be happy, along the lines of Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs.”

Here is the reality.

In one the largest studies on what makes people happy, social scientists John Helliwell and Robert Putnam examined the well-being of a large sample of people in 51 countries and found this: social connections in the form of family, friends and community are vital to life satisfaction and happiness.

But connections are not just important in and of themselves—the most meaningful experiences involve bonding. Matthew Lieberman, a distinguished social psychologist and neuroscientist, confirmed that one of the brain’s primary functions is to forge human relationships. In his book Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect, he argues that our brains value real connections with other people as being just as central to our happiness as shelter and food.

What does this have to do with tech?

In the human connection stakes, technology is getting it right, gradually. Innovation is following a trajectory towards increased human interaction that fosters bonding, not just connecting and collaborating, and entrepreneurs should stay tuned, because the next wave is coming, and there is massive opportunity.

Connected, collaborative and community-based

With the internet age came connection on an unprecedented scale, and today we are ever more connected to ever more people, in virtual networks that unite us by interest, profession, shared suffering, quirky hobbies, ad infinitum.

Collaboration is the natural extension of connection, reflected by current tech growth. We collaborate to consume, to entertain ourselves, and for experiences, learning, exercise, causes, for experiments, for business – you name it. From Uber to Taskrabbit, Snapgoods to Localmind, Airbnb, and more, technology is hot when it helps us collaborate more easily.

Community is the natural extension of collaboration. From online forums, social media groups, online courses, fan gatherings and more, community is a global drive that reflects what all the research indicates: we need social connection for happiness. Scott Heiferman recognized the importance of real, live community after 9/11 in the US, and started Meetup. Other examples abound. Some stand-outs: Humans of New York galvanizes millions to fund charitable drives, and artists like Amanda Palmer can bypass music labels with fan-driven fundraising. Communities create change.

Yet, connection and collaboration alone are not enough for happiness—all evidence points to real, genuine relationships as the factor that most matters.

When it comes to relationships, it’s still hit and miss

The truth is, and there’s no harm admitting it, online connection, collaboration, and community can bring isolation as much as togetherness. It can bring the pain of comparison, as much as it confers joy in solidarity. Moreover, it doesn’t always create the outcomes one might assume. More than 90% of people who enroll in online courses never complete it, to reference a commonly quoted statistic. It’s just the case that having real, live human interaction in a classroom setting makes a difference—and not just in the classroom.

According to research carried out by UPS, 70 percent of small business owners that receive personal one-on-one mentoring survive for five years or more, double the rate of those who do not have this personal, intimate business advice.

When does tech get it right? Partly it’s about how technology is used. For every person who decries the falseness and social pressure of social media, like Instagram model Essena O’Neill who famously and publicly quit, there is a story of technology bringing people together. Have a look at these US school kids connecting to kids all over the world via Skype.

When tech fosters genuine human connections, it can’t go wrong.

Our access to the world is at once more vast than it has ever been, AND our time is every more limited. Yet, never before in human history have we been able to contact someone so quickly on the other side of the world. To the extent that technology connects people in a way that is fundamental to forging real interpersonal relationships, it has vast potential to increase happiness.

Yet a decde post-Meetup, there is still the looming question of the extent to which technology dilutes rather than fosters real human connection. European Union leaders tackled this head on in 2012 with their project “TA2” (Together anywhere, together anytime’). This research examined how new technologies could improve the ways in which people nurture and develop their relationships, both via one on one and group-to-group communication such as within families. They analysed specific means by which technology can be improved in order to enable groups to build relationships when apart. Their conclusion? Yes, it can, but there is still a way to go, and much untapped potential.

From virtual classrooms to interactive games requiring one-on-one connection, forging relationships is key to happiness. What will happen here in the tech space? Stay tuned.

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