Dr. Laurie Santos of Yale University teaches a class on happiness, Psychology and the Good Life, which is the most sought after class at Yale. She recently started a podcast called The Happiness Lab that explores the science of happiness. In this week’s episode, “Mistakenly Seeking Solitude,” she talks about how society falsely assumes that convenience, efficiency, and instant gratification are the building blocks of happiness. Technological innovations such as the ATM, e-commerce, and smartphone apps like the Starbucks app have significantly reduced our waiting time. According to her brother Aaron Santos, author of How Many Licks and Estimate Damn Near Anything, we spend on average over 7,000 hours (about 6 months) of our lifetime waiting in lines, a topic that we never tire of when we complain to friends and family about our day. We weigh our lives in minutes and hours and charge people and activities according to the time they are worth: the boss is valued at 60 minutes for a work meeting; a childhood friend is worth a 30-minute coffee; and the toddler is a good 20 minutes of reading time before he falls fast asleep. Dr. Laurie Santos states that we are starving for time and believe that if we just had more of it to spend, we would be happier.
We have technology to thank for our increased convenience and efficiency; however, it has come with a great social cost, according to happiness researchers. In one study by psychologists Ed Diener and Martin Seligman, participants who reported the highest levels of happiness had more social relationships and interactions than those who reported average or below average levels of happiness. Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman and his colleagues found that the activity that made us the most happy, more than eating, shopping, relaxing, and watching television was being around others. In the podcast, Dr. Laurie Santos interviews friend Nick Epley, professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago, who states, “Happiness isn’t about the intensity of experiences that we have; it’s about the frequency of them.” He compares our social interactions to a leaky tire. We don’t inflate it once and it’s good to go indefinitely. We need to fill it on a regular basis. Even when those interactions are with strangers, like on public transit or in long lines at Starbucks, and regardless whether someone is an introvert or extrovert, we are more happy in the company of others than when we are alone. When researchers asked participants what would bring them more happiness, participants assumed that the company of strangers would lead to increased levels of unhappiness, but in fact, studies show the contrary.
In Argentine tango, we have the opportunity to embrace strangers on a regular basis, and even if we talk little during those shallow pockets of time between songs, the physical contact between two individuals rewards us with feelings of joy and pleasure. This should come as no surprise to tango addicts. What is most surprising, according to happiness researchers, is that even sitting in the sidelines in the company of strangers brings us more happiness than being alone. However, every beginner has his or her violin story of rejected cabeceos and danceless nights after paying the expensive festival pass. Many dancers of all levels have quit tango due to the low frequency of tandas on any given night. And the social fabric of tango communities can be as diverse as the very tango orchestras that they adore. If you have discovered tango in your life or maybe you’re a frustrated tango addict, and you have access to affordable or free tango events, before quitting, consider taking the time to tango–a time to socialize, a time to sit in silence admiring the piano toe taps of your favorite dancer, a time to be a little more happy in the company of strangers.