How to be popular

Amanda Riley-Jones

Many social scientists now believe that cultivating the right kind of popularity is the key to greater happiness—and even a longer life

What does popularity mean?

Does the subject of popularity make you think of social hierarchies at school and younger family members collecting “Friends” on social networking sites? Then you may be surprised to find out that popularity actually remains a powerful force throughout our lives. In the 1980s, developmental psychologists asked children to rate how much they liked or disliked their classmates. The responses were used to classify them into categories, which are still used today: Popular; Rejected; Average, Controversial (both liked and disliked) and Neglected (largely unnoticed).

“Often, the group we land in as adults is the same one we were in as youths. The characteristics that cause us to be accepted (or not) by peers have the potential to make us liked or disliked again and again, even as we change settings, for the rest of our lives,” explains Mitch Prinstein, psychology professor and author of Popular: Why Being Liked Is the Secret to Greater Success and Happiness.

“Results from thousands of research studies have revealed that—more than childhood intellect, family background, prior psychological symptoms and maternal relationships—it’s popularity that predicts how happy we grow up to be.” However, popularity is something of a paradox. Because it turns out that there’s more than one kind— and if we spend our lives chasing the wrong type, we could be heading for trouble.


Perpetual adolescence

The first type of popularity is to do with status—which we start to crave when we hit adolescence. Our brains grow faster and a surge in pubertal hormones prepares us to separate from our parents and focus more on peers. Oxytocin increases our desire to bond and dopamine makes us want to be noticed and admired.

“Adolescents are virtually addicted to this type of popularity,” Prinstein adds. But, he warns, when people continue to pursue this status-based popularity excessively, they’re more likely to suffer from relationship difficulties, anxiety, depression and addictions later in life. Prinstein says, “Because their happiness remains dependent on other peoples’ approval, they tend to repeat the same patterns and may face a lifetime of discontent.

“In today’s society, our highest-status peers are celebrities and our fascination with them leaves us in a state of perpetual adolescence. We care about their lives, changes in physical appearance, courtships and break-ups just as intently as we paid attention to the popular teens in school.” Prinstein’s worried by modern society’s fixation on status, fame, power and wealth, saying, “We pay too much heed to people who capture our attention rather than those who deserve it—even though research suggests this is exactly what we should be avoiding if we want to foster a culture of contentment.”

Likeability predicts our fate

The second kind of popularity is likeability, which embraces qualities such as positivity, kindness, generosity and making other people feel valued. Increasingly experts are discovering that it’s our ability to get on with others that predicts our fate in many areas of life.

Study after study confirms that people who look for “intrinsic” rewards (to do with close relationships, helping others and personal growth) report greater happiness than those looking for external rewards (such as fame, power and wealth). “My own research, involving 9,000 people from 131 countries, revealed that adults who have memories of being popular in childhood are the most likely to report that their marriages are happier, their work relationships stronger and that they’re flourishing as members of society,” says Prinstein. And picking out likeable peers is child’s play. Research shows that from the age of four, children can report exactly who their most popular peers are. They’re not necessarily powerful, dominant or highly visible; they’re simply the kids that everyone likes the most.


So lonely I could die

When it comes to our health, being unpopular or lonely can have a devastating impact—to the point of shortening our lives. Last year, Dr Helen Stokes-Lampard, head of the Royal College of General Practitioners, announced that loneliness can be as bad for our health as a long-term illness, such as diabetes or high blood pressure. “Loneliness is worse for us than obesity and physical inactivity, and as bad as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Chronic loneliness increases the likelihood of early mortality by 26 per cent,” adds Laura Alcock-Ferguson, executive director of the UK’s Campaign to End Loneliness.


Friends are good for our hearts

Friends protect our health as much as quitting smoking and even more than exercising, according to US scientific journal PLOS One. “Strong social relationships support mental health—and that ties into better immune function, reduced stress and less cardiovascular disease,” reports Dr Debra Umberson, a professor of sociology at the University of Texas, who has studied the link between social ties and health.

Apart from being more likely to exercise or diet if we do it with a friend, loved ones may also remind us to look after our health or even intervene if we go off the rails, by drinking too much for instance. She adds, “Research has also found that physical touch can trigger lower blood pressure and reduced heart rate. Over time, these will have a cumulative benefit on overall health and lifespan.”


It’s never too late

Prinstein concludes, “I hope people will reconsider their childhood experiences and see that the type of popularity that they felt they lacked may not have been all that it seemed. Try to recognise how popularity (or unpopularity) has contributed to biases in how you perceive social interactions today—and remember that people are reacting to who they see today, not who you were in the past.” Another positive is that likeability isn’t fixed. It’s not just something we are born with. Experts say that the behaviours that make us likeable can be learned at any age. It’s never too late to hone our people skills, expand our social network and start relating better to others.

It alters our DNA

Believe it or not, feeling unpopular can alter our very DNA. Within 40 minutes of being left by a romantic partner or excluded from a social event, parts of our DNA are turned on or off, according to experts in the field of social genomics. These cellular-level changes activate a response linked to our immune system, which is needed for healing wounds and infections. George Slavich and Steven Cole, psychological researchers at the University of California, have suggested that this response to rejection may be nature’s way of protecting isolated individuals without peers to defend them.

8 ways to pep up your popularity:

Here’s a round-up of advice from the scientists:

  1. Spend time with people you want to befriend. Psychologists say that people tend to like people who are familiar to them—according to the “mere exposure effect”. Canadian psychologist Dr Patrick Keelan explains, “It’s a response built into us as a result of our evolutionary past, when people were more likely to survive if they approached people and other creatures only once they had determined they were non-threatening.” So schedule regular activities with others and the more time you spend together, the more you will grow to like each other.
  2. Talk positively about other people. Try a little “spontaneous trait transference”. When you talk about another person, listeners unconsciously associate you with the characteristics you’re describing. “So, say positive and pleasant things about friends and colleagues, and you are seen as a nice person,” advises Professor Richard Wiseman in his book 59 Seconds: Think a Little, Change a Lot.
  3. Ask lots of questions. Harvard neuroscientists Diana Tamir and Jason Mitchell discovered that talking about ourselves triggers the same pleasure chemicals in the brain as food or money. In fact, participants were willing to forgo money in order to talk about themselves! And try specific questions such as, “Have you been involved in any exciting projects recently?” rather than a bland, “How are you?”.
  4. Stay upbeat. Moods are contagious—and the transmission from one person to another is so instant and subtle that we’re not aware of it, according to Elaine Hatfield, professor of psychology at the University of Hawaii. If you can stay upbeat and positive, people around you will become more upbeat too. And being in sync helps to build emotional rapport.
  5. Find things in common. Who doesn’t like to talk to someone and think, Snap, me too! Scientists call this the similarity-attraction effect. In a classic study, social psychologist Theodore Newcomb measured participants’ attitudes on controversial subjects before they moved into shared accommodation together. Unsurprisingly, the experiment showed that the housemates with similar attitudes liked each other more.
  6. Share a secret. Self-disclosure can help build a friendship. US researchers put students into pairs with pre-set questions to ask each other. The pairs who were given deeper, more personal questions reported they felt much closer to each other at the end. When you’re getting to know someone, try building up from asking easy questions (like the last book they read) to something more meaningful —such as the people who mean the most to them in life.
  7. Use the power of touch. An appropriate friendly touch (whether it’s a warm handshake, light touch on the arm or full-on hug) increases the release of the hormone oxytocin, which promotes a sense of trust and a slew of other good feelings that make us feel close to one another.
  8. Behave like you like them. According to the “reciprocity of liking” phenomenon, when we act like we like someone, they will probably like us back. Researchers at the University of Waterloo and the University of Manitoba discovered that we behave more warmly when we expect people to accept us—which ups the chances that they really will like us!