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  • Brendan Stec

We can't live...with or without them

March 16th, 2021

Chip Heron: Hey, how was school?

Cady: Fine.

Betsy Heron: Were people nice?

Cady: No.

Chip Heron: Did you make any friends?

Cady: Yes.

Mean Girls (2004)


What Is Other People?

“Hell", John-Paul Sartre wrote, "is other people.”

If we think to our own lives, maybe he’s right—in a way. Most of our problems are caused by them. There are challenging bosses, difficult partners, bureaucrats, criminals… and also the problems they create: obligations, rejections, lawsuits, criticism.

Yet as many problems other people can create for us, we cannot live without them. Literally.

Emile Durkheim

The original gangster sociologist Emile Durkheim figured this out in the late 19th century by studying suicide rates across different groups of people across Europe.

After analyzing the data, no matter how he sliced it, he noticed that the primary factor driving a community’s suicide rate was the number of social constraints present. Communities with tighter networks of people had lower suicide rates.

He noticed this effect particularly varied between religious groups.

Protestant communities, typically having the most flexible level of spiritual commitment, had suicide rates higher than the stricter Catholics. And Jews, the group with the most tightly knit religious communities at the time, had suicide rates the lowest of any group of all (1).

Mom, I Really Want Frosted Tips

The paradox with Durkheim's results is that we often think of having more social constraints—and constraints in general—as a bad thing. Hell, the word “constraint” itself reminds me of sitting cramped in an airplane, elbow awkwardly touching the other guy’s elbow.

Social constraints can feel constricting in a similar way. Within a community, there are rules and conventions to follow. There are hierarchies and traditions. No, you can’t just go get frosted tips if you really want to, because that may go against "the system" or whatever. There are compromises that must be made with others and sacrifices made for others.

These constraints can feel especially constricting against the backdrop of our modern culture, which sometimes fetishizes individual success and the occasional selfish choices or values required to achieve it. When a choice must be made between a lucrative job and a community we call home, most of us feel pressure to take the lucrative job.

The CEO of Dropbox Drew Houston once said in a speech to a bunch of graduating MIT students:

“Where you live matters. Whatever you’re doing, there’s usually only one place where the top people go. You should go there. Don’t settle for anything else…If the real action is happening somewhere else, move.” (2)

This advice makes sense logically, but obviously for most of us, the “top place” is going to be far from where our existing family and friends are located, away from the support system and social constraints that, as Durkheim had shown, are so valuable. Before we blindly follow this advice, I think we deserve to at least be aware of the isolation and loneliness that, even if only temporary, may result from moving away from those relationships.

Are these costs worth the opportunity to rub elbows with other high achievers?

As Jonathan Haidt wrote in The Happiness Hypothesis:

“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.” (3)

Happy Loman: I don’t know what the hell I’m workin’ for. Sometimes I sit in my apartment—all alone. And I think of the rent I’m paying. And it’s crazy. But then, it’s what I always wanted. My own apartment, a car, plenty of women, and still, goddamnit, I’m lonely.

Death of a Salesmen (1949) by Arthur Miller

Relationships Save Lives

I want to end this note by discussing the Harvard Study of Adult Development. For the last 83 years, this study has closely monitored cohorts of individuals and their families throughout their entire lives to understand which factors human beings can control, if any at all, to improve health and happiness.

As you might have guessed, social relationships play the biggest role.

An article in The Harvard Gazette elaborates further. “Close relationships, more than money or fame, are what keep people happy throughout their lives. […] Those ties protect people from life’s discontents, help to delay mental and physical decline, and are better predictors of long and happy lives than social class, IQ, or even genes.”

As the study's director Robert Waldinger has taken away from these findings:

“Loneliness kills. It’s as powerful as smoking or alcoholism.”

As we hopefully approach escape velocity from the pandemic in these next few months, perhaps this is now the best opportunity to re-connect with the people we've been separated from for all of these months. And gain a new appreciation for the power of relationships.



(1) Study is summarized in The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt (pp. 132–133)

(2) As told in How I Built This by Guy Raz (p. 111)

(3) See The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt (p. 133)


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