Take a few seconds to answer these questions:
How good are you at connecting your friends with each other?
How good are you at connecting your acquaintances with each other?
How good are you at setting up your friends on dates?
If your first reaction to these questions was something like, “Amazingly good – I’m a master matchmaker,” you’re in luck (if a bit full of yourself). Our new research shows that you’re very likely to be a happy person. In fact, even making just a few matches between people – right this minute – can increase your happiness. And while Valentine’s Day makes us think of matchmaking as involving cherubs, archery, and romance, it turns out that many kinds of matchmaking are associated with increased well-being, from connecting would-be paramours to making professional connections on LinkedIn.
Imagine showing up to one of our laboratory sessions and completing a “get acquainted” task with a group of five strangers: you start by sharing your name, place of birth, occupation, and hobbies. As everyone else in the group does the same, you already start making mental connections: “They’re both from Ohio!” “They were born in the same month!” “Wow, I had no idea that many people liked macramé!” And it’s a good thing you did, because we now tell you that it’s your job to match people in pairs for the next part of the session, where the pairs that you picked will have a conversation. Pressure’s on – you might make bad matches, but then again you also get the rare chance to flash your master matchmaking skills. Our results showed that the pleasure of matchmaking outweighed the stress: people who played matchmaker became happier over the course of the session.
Matchmaking is so fun, we made it into a game. For each round, players viewed a target person’s face, and selected which of three other people they thought would be that person’s best match. We asked people to complete as many rounds of this matchmaking task as they wanted before moving on to another task. But we varied what kind of match we asked people to make: some were asked to match people who they thought would get along with best, others were asked to match people who they thought would get along worst. Even though the two tasks are similar in most respects – you’re looking at faces and clicking on one – people loved the “like each other” game but, well, hated the “hate each other” game, completing many more rounds of the former. It seems that connecting people who we think will fall in love – or at least in like – is most rewarding.
So matchmaking is great, but… one more question for you to answer: When you set up your friends on dates, what percent are actually successful? Remember the episode of “The Office” in which Michael Scott attempts to fix geeky Eric up with Meredith by helpfully pointing out their similarities? “So, Eric, you mentioned before that you are in Tool & Die Repair. Meredith recently had a total hysterectomy, so that’s sort of a repair. Alright, I’ll let you guys talk!” We all know people who are chronically bad matchmakers, and, in fact, our research shows that failed matchmaking does not lead to increased happiness. It may be best to think of matchmaking as high risk, higher reward. Some matches may not work out, but the happiness benefits of trying seem to trump the occasional depressing failure.
So who should you introduce this Valentine’s Day? We tend to introduce people with a lot in common: “I should introduce Beyoncé to Jay-Z because they both like music.” Our research shows that while making these kinds of “obvious” matches is rewarding for matchmakers, the biggest happiness bang for the matchmaking buck comes from introducing people who might not otherwise meet – such as people with very different backgrounds. Truly masterful matchmaking, it seems, involves making improbable matches. In preparation for February 14, try matching your workaholic financier colleague with your pie-in-the-sky artsy cousin.
Still feeling reluctant to play matchmaker? It doesn’t have to be as awkward as the Michael Scott version, grabbing two people at a party and watching them struggle to make even the smallest of talk. Our research shows that making friendship and professional connections are as good for happiness as the more emotionally-loaded romantic kinds. Social networking sites make matchmaking as simple as a few clicks – try using You Should Totally Meet on Facebook for friends or the Suggest Connections feature on LinkedIn for colleagues. You very likely know two people in your workplace or your friend network that are unacquainted and might do the other kind of clicking. Even if they don’t become instant partners for life, you’ve given them a new business associate, or a new friend.
And there’s one final benefit to matchmaking. Research shows that not only does helping others – whether by spending money on them or performing random acts of kindness – lead to happiness, but that thanking others for their generosity is a source of happiness as well. So, not only will you be happier having made a match, but the newly-matched pair has you to thank, which will make them happy all over again.
Are you a scientist who specializes in neuroscience, cognitive science, or psychology? And have you read a recent peer-reviewed paper that you would like to write about? Please send suggestions to Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist and regular contributor to NewYorker.com. Gareth is also the series editor of Best American Infographics, and can be reached at garethideas AT gmail.com or Twitter @garethideas.