From time to time I argue that 'shallow' informal interactions, such as simple gestures of recognition at neighbourhood level, are more significant in terms of social capital than is generally recognised.
I raised this recently in relation to the CLG guidance on 'meaningful social interaction,' which argues that for social interaction to be 'meaningful' it needs to go beyond a superficial level and to be sustained. My view is that yes it makes a difference if it's sustained, but 'superficial' does not mean trivial. Superficial is good.
Now I'm just catching up with a paper in BMJ last month about happiness and social networks, which got quite a bit of publicity for its finding that happiness is 'contagious'. The researchers looked at 20 years of data from the Framingham heart study in Massachussetts and found that:
People’s happiness depends on the happiness of others with whom they are connected.
This includes close neighbours, but apparently next door neighbours have a much stronger influence than neighbours who live a few doors down in the same neighbourhood. The researchers observe:
the strong influence of neighbours suggests that the spread of happiness might depend more on frequent social contact than deep social connections.
So let's take that as a tentative endorsement. More evidence needed of course.
And behind all this are the challenges of defining (without solidfying) what we're talking about. A few weeks ago I was questioning some of the assumptions about definitions of 'belonging' in the methodologically-creaky Changing UK research, and perhaps there are comparable dangers in assumptions about 'happiness'. One commentator on the BMJ paper observes:
Happiness research that attempts to find generalisations about happiness... will not challenge inherent assumptions about what makes people happy, what is happiness, and who is happy in society or indeed, as Anthony Storr suggests, who is 'happy alone!'