Loneliness is a problem. And at Irrational Labs, we’re working to solve it. And so is Irrational Labs CEO & Co-Founder Kristen Berman. Kristen addressed the BBA graduating class of 2023 at the Wisconsin School of Business, University of Wisconsin, where she shared her own “hack” for designing a life that’s optimally set up to not be lonely: move in with your friends.
Read the excerpt from her talk below to learn this life hack (spoiler: your happiness depends on it!).
Want to Solve Loneliness? Live Near Your People [Kristen Berman Talk]
Let me give you a picture of life at 35 with one kid. You’ve moved out of the city to have more space and better schools. You have a nice-ish house in a close-ish suburb, you have a date night once a week with your spouse and you see your friends once every other weekend for a barbecue you planned very far in advance. Most evenings, you have the TV on while you scroll continuously, alone. You’ve heard about a few events in town, but parking’s a hassle and you have HBO Max at home.
How might you describe this life? Adequate? Reasonable? It’s not something you’d dream of, it’s not 10 out of 10. But then, why do so many people who achieve their dreams in other ways design a life like this for themselves?
At many points in your life you are going to have to make a choice as to where you live.
There will be near term decisions (now!) about where you live in the city you just landed a job.
And farther term decisions about where you move when you’re settling down with a new partner.
And even farther about where to live with school-age kids.
In all cases, you’ll have to prioritize your preferences. There will be tradeoffs. Sadly, most people make the wrong decision.
How do people normally make this decision?
We look at how big a house is. If the bathrooms are re-done. The kitchen countertops are nice. We look at the size of rooms and closets and if the sunlight hits in a nice spot. We look at if it’s a trendy neighborhood, if you have a yard. And of course, studying the quality of the white picket fence.
And then we make the biggest purchase decision of our lives (except for kids – those are expensive).
To my knowledge, I may not have found them, but there are no papers in all of social science that have found a relationship between countertops and happiness. No papers that have found a relationship between the niceness of a bathroom and happiness. Except a really nice bidet can really make your day.
What is the biggest driver of happiness? Money. Just kidding. That was a joke. Of course not, it’s having a lot of money! But no, really..It’s relationships. Relationships are the biggest driver of happiness.
If relationships are the biggest driver of happiness (and by the way, relationships are free… you don’t need money), How do you drive quality relationships?
There is one law in behavioral sciences – if you want someone to do something, you make it easier, if you don’t want them to do something, you make it harder.
As an example, my team worked with TikTok. We did an experiment to decrease misinformation on TikTok. How would you approach that problem? If you want someone to do something, make it easier, if you don’t make it harder. All we did was put a popup after someone clicked share that said, Are you sure? And by adding friction, adding a step, we reduced shares by 26%.
So if you want more or better quality relationships, you need to make seeing your friends easier. How would you do that? How would you make seeing your friends easier? You’d go live by them.
If you want to be happy, you need to proactively design for relationships, which means prioritizing them – potentially over a redone bathroom and kitchen countertops.
It simply means renting or buying a house so that you’re within a close walking distance of your friends. It’s that simple. If you choose not to live by friends, it takes more time to go see them. You need to plan and coordinate – that’s way harder than dismissing a pop-up. It’s harder – and thus if you don’t live by friends you are making quality relationships harder and thus decreasing your happiness mojo.
And so you may now ask me, Kristen, where do you live? I’ve taken this idea to the extreme. I live with 18 friends in a compound in Oakland. There are 6 buildings and 4 kids under 2.
My partner and I purchased it 4 years ago with no one committed. We put up a flag and our friends showed up. Someone makes dinner every night at 7:30 – instead of a barbecue you have to plan that happens 2x a month, we have zero planning and daily hot tub hangs if we want it. We hand our baby monitor to our friends when we want a date night or to go out.
It’s the people.
You may not want the compound life, but you should think about this now. You are graduating.
1) When you move to a new city, are you choosing to live near the people you know and love?
2) Are you setting up structures that will preserve the relationships you’ve made here? Do you have the group chats, the yearly reunions, etc.
3) Are you reducing friction to the thing that will make you happiest in life?
You know this in college – for the last 4 years you have lived by friends. You know this deep in your bones. And you love it. Don’t give up on this. And yet we forget. You may forget.
As you get older, you start to prioritize a bathroom renovation instead of friendship. And yes, this sounds crazy to you now and I hope you think back on this talk and it continues to sound crazy to you later.
Remember, humans are irrational. If you want to keep living the dream, the dream of living by your friends, the dream of designing for what makes us happiest, you need to nudge yourself.
So turn to the person you care about, the person you spent all these great years with, look them in the eyes and say… “You will always mean more to me than a bathroom sink. Even a brand new Kohler.
Further Resources on Loneliness (& How to Combat It)
- Reframing the Loneliness Epidemic
- Most People Are Feeling Lonely These Days. Our Behavioral Science Experiment Found an Unexpected Way of Boosting Connection
Interested in using behavioral economics to design the environment for happiness? ‘Connect’ with us and let’s talk about how we can help.