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Amazing, once-in-a-lifetime experiences make us social misfits

Study finds tales that hog the spotlight can be a drag on social connections

As anyone who has signed on to Facebook recently can see, social media takes the propensity for sharing extraordinary experiences to the maximum. A Facebook feed can read like a list of epic moments from friends near and far: a gnarly mountain bike ride; an exquisite meal in Italy; a celebrity sighting.

But a new study led by a Harvard researcher suggests that the human desire to share out-of-the-ordinary experiences with others may amount to a fundamental miscalculation of what brings people together — and could even be a social liability.

The best conversations and connections seemed to stem from shared experiences, the researchers suggest, not from exotic yarns of parachuting out of a plane or summiting a mountain that we think will impress our colleagues.

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Instead of launching a person into the spotlight, such experiences might do the reverse — making them feel more excluded and alone.

“I definitely don’t want to say the take-home message to be you never seek experiences that are unique and awesome, because that’s just silly,” said Gus Cooney, a psychology graduate student at Harvard University who led the work. “The thing we don’t naturally look at is the cost . . . and it’s hard to realize how strongly social life depends on common ground.”

Cooney said his research question was spurred by a series of small epiphanies during normal social interactions. For example, he said, not long ago he was joking with friends about an ordinary, uncomfortable bus ride they had endured between Boston and New York City. But he noticed that one person — a charismatic guy who was usually at the center of things — was uncharacteristically quiet.

Why, Cooney wondered. Then, it dawned on him: his friend had taken the train, rather than the bus, and had nothing to add.

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In a study published this month in the journal Psychological Science, Cooney and colleagues examined the question with a more scientific approach, and found that the joy and benefits of extraordinary experiences seem to come with a social price.

The researchers took groups of four people and showed three of them a low-budget animated movie that had been poorly rated, while one person got to watch a four-star video of a magician performing surprising feats. Afterward, the group convened and informally chatted for five minutes.

They found that those who had watched the video filled with neat feats that they could describe to the group reported feeling more excluded and less happy after the social interaction.

People predicted, correctly, that they would feel happier after watching the interesting video than the bad one. But they overestimated how happy they would feel after the social interaction, while it was the people who had watched the boring video who got an unexpected happiness boost.

Amit Bhattacharjee, a visiting assistant professor of business administration at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College who was not involved in the research, said that it would be important to test whether the effect could be explained by the fact the other three had shared the same experience. A simple set of experiments could be designed to show it was extraordinariness, and not simply social exclusion, that underlay the phenomenon, he said.

“These are definitely important questions, in what really brings us happiness and what do we think brings us happiness,” Bhattacharjee said, noting that Cooney’s coauthors, Harvard psychology professor Daniel Gilbert and University of Virginia psychology professor Timothy Wilson, have made a career of revealing the often counterintuitive answers to those questions.

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Understanding things such as the social cost of our most enviable experiences “is a potential way we can gain more control over how we feel on a day-to-day basis, and more broadly in life,” Bhattacharjee said.

The study is just the latest in a spate of studies suggesting that our intuitions about what to save and share may be leading us astray.

Bhattacharjee and a colleague have shown that although extraordinary experiences are desirable at all ages, as people get older ordinary experiences begin to make them just as happy.

A Harvard Business School study published in Psychological Science last month found that people received the greatest joys in rediscovering incidental, everyday moments, and not just the special occasions that they thought would give them the greatest joy.

In another study published last month, Yale University researchers found that sharing an experience with another person intensified it, suggesting that checking out of the present by scanning a cellphone under the dinner table may have negative personal consequences beyond the annoyance it causes to dining companions.


Carolyn Y. Johnson can be reached at cjohnson@globe .com. Follow her on Twitter @carolynyjohnson.