Every Sunday, The Simple Dollar reviews a personal finance or other book of interest. Also available is a complete list of the hundreds of book reviews that have appeared on The Simple Dollar over the years.
I’ve often talked about how having a social network that challenges you to improve yourself and encourages you towards good behavior can deeply shape how you think and the choices you make. Although I largely observed this idea on my own, a reader recently pointed me toward this book, Social Intelligence by Daniel Goleman, which essentially argues the same idea in great detail.
Goleman’s premise is simple: good relationships support our physical and mental health and drive us to improve ourselves in a positive fashion, while negative relationships do just the opposite. The social network we build has a great deal to do with how we think and how we behave on our own.
The impact of this idea on personal finance is tremendous. If you associate with people who have solid views on personal finance, personal growth, and career development, you’ll naturally draw on these ideas to shape your own path in your finances, your career, and your life.
While I discuss the ideas with a broad brush below, Goleman goes into these with great detail, often discussing how they work on a biological level. Friendships and relationships change us biologically, in other words.
Wired to Connect
Our brains are wired to make connections with other people. Even deeper than that, our interactions with others shape our behavior again and again in subtle ways. A simple example of this is the fact that how people interact with us alters our self-image, but it goes far beyond that. We often subtly emulate the behaviors we see other people taking on in various situations, trying these behaviors on for ourselves. Thus, if we associate with people who have good behaviors in a wide variety of situations, our repeated viewing of these behaviors begins to affect who we are and how we act.
Obviously, there’s a negative side to this. When people treat us poorly, we begin to reduce our own self-image. When we lose someone, we can feel lost ourselves. The social bonds that break in our lives can break us. The key to getting past this is improving our understanding of other people. Others are mortal. They feel pain. They die. They make mistakes. They have their own goals and dreams. It’s not necessarily a poor reflection on us if the goals and dreams of someone else do not involve us, though it can be a sign that we need to improve some aspect of ourselves. That’s all about self-improvement, though, not self-loathing.
Goleman takes on the “nature versus nurture” question here and argues that, while our nature does form some aspects of who we are, much of who we are is formed by the people around us and the interactions we have. For instance, if someone is rather antisocial by nature, the best way to overcome that isn’t by just saying “Well, it’s my genes,” it’s by associating with people who find social interaction to be easy. The best approach you can take is to be honest and open with yourself about your flaws and make a point to seek out others that can, through social intelligence, help you overcome those flaws. Find friends that bring out the best in you.
Obviously, these concepts relate deeply to love and committed relationships. Relationships are the end result of a large number of social encounters, and people who are in relationships often powerfully shape each other in more ways than they realize. Most married people will tell you that the flow of their married life, even when they’re without their partner, is different than the flow of their previous single life.
Goleman argues that stress is almost entirely a social phenomenon because it indicates on some level that we feel we’re letting others down. The healthiest relationships we have – the ones that lack stress – are often the strongest ones we have. Think of your closest friends, for instance, or your spouse. Healthy connections (the ones that do not provide us with stress) are incredibly valuable in our life because they allow us to make deep connections and learn an incredible amount.
A healthy life is one that finds a happy medium between stress and boredom. In either extreme case, we’re unproductive and often unhappy. The key is to find situations and relationships where we’re neither bored nor stressed out. This applies in almost every situation in life, from having a dinner with acquaintances to working on a project in the workplace. A stressed-out person simply does not perform well, nor does a bored person. Thus, if you want to succeed or want the people around you to succeed, you need a warm and enjoyable environment. Often, that’s one filled with people that you have (or can have) positive interactions with. Shared positive interactions create the kind of stress-killing that leads to success.
Is Social Intelligence Worth Reading?
Many of the conclusions in Social Intelligence feel like common sense. Some of them, though, are revelations. All of them are backed up with some solid cognitive theory.
If you want to really understand the science between human interactions and how being a bit more thoughtful about those interactions can have a profound positive impact on many different aspects of your life, read Social Intelligence. It’s a fairly long book and can be challenging at times, but it can certainly be profoundly rewarding.