U. BUFFALO (US)—The best and worst experiences in life are likely to involve not individual accomplishments, but interactions with other people and the fulfillment of an urge for social connection.

“Most of us spend much of our time and effort focused on individual achievements such as work, hobbies, and schooling,” says Shira Gabriel, associate professor of psychology at University at Buffalo.

“However this research suggests that the events that end up being most important in our lives, the events that bring us the most happiness and also carry the potential for the most pain, are social events—moments of connecting to others and feeling their connections to us.”

Details of the study are published in the journal Self and Identity.

Gabriel says that much research in social psychology has explicitly or implicitly implied that events experienced independent of other individuals are central to explaining our most intense emotional experiences.

“We found, however that it was not independent events or individual achievements like winning awards or completing tasks that affected participants the most, but the moments when close relationships began or ended; when people fell in love or found a new friend; when a loved one died or broke hearts.

“In short, it was the moments of connecting to others that that touched peoples’ lives the most.”

For the research, a total of 376 subjects participated in four studies.

Study 1 involved college students who were asked to describe the most positive and negative emotional experiences of their lives. Overwhelmingly, and without regard for the sex of participants, they were much more likely to describe social events as the most positive and negative thing they had ever experienced (as compared to independent events).

Study 2, replicated and extended Study 1, with similar results, and focused on middle-aged participants who were asked to report on a recent intense emotional experience.

Study 3 provided evidence that the strong emotional impact of interdependent (i.e., social) events reported in the first two studies was not due to the fact that social events were more salient than independent events.

Study 4 demonstrated that when thinking about both social and independent events, participants rate the social events as far more impactful than independent events. Study 4 also demonstrated that social events gain their emotional punch from our need to belong.

Researchers from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the University of Oklahoma, Norman, contributed to the study.

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