How to Be Happier Than Edgar Allan Poe

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My sorrow—I could not awaken
My heart to joy at the same tone—
And all I lov’d—I lov’d alone

These lines come from the American writer Edgar Allan Poe’s poem “Alone,” written in 1829. The poem laments his intense, painful loneliness. This isolation was perhaps self-imposed; some evidence suggests to me that Poe may have lacked interest in others. According to one obituary, Poe “had very few friends, and he was the friend of very few—if any.” It’s not that no one was interested in him; it’s that he wasn’t interested in them, which made impossible the friendship that he—like all people—would have needed.

Do you feel a longing to be known that is not being met? If so, then—in that, at least—you are not alone. According to a survey conducted by the health services company Cigna and the market-research company Ipsos in 2018, more than half of U.S. adults said they always or sometimes felt that “no one knows them well.” If this includes you, you may be suffering from what we could call Poe syndrome, in which your inattention to others is at the root of the problem.

A great deal of research has demonstrated that feeling known by others brings higher well-being. For example, one study in 2008 showed that when measuring life satisfaction on a one-to-seven scale, simply feeling “more understood” on a given day pushed up satisfaction by nearly half a point. The scholars also noticed significant gender differences: For instance, when women felt misunderstood, their life satisfaction fell by about three times more than men’s.

Neuroscientists have explored the effects of being known and understood. Using fMRI technology, they have found that feeling understood activates pleasure centers in the brain, such as the ventral striatum, while feeling misunderstood stimulates pain centers, such as the anterior insula. This finding makes evolutionary sense, insofar as we tend to succeed better in close communities when others know and understand us, and we are more under threat of rejection when we don’t have that understanding from others. So, even in modern times, when no one knows you well, or your partner seems not to understand you, your brain may send out an alarm that corresponds to the ancient warning that you might soon be wandering the savannah alone.

We tend to thrive more by being known than we do by knowing others. For example, scholars found that knowledge of one’s spouse improved adjustment to marriage, enhanced intimacy, and increased trust. However, being known by your spouse improved all three measures of marital happiness by about twice as much. Interestingly, research shows that for straight men and women, knowing that their partner is trying to understand them is even more important than that they actually succeed in doing so. And this perspective is more strongly tied to relationship satisfaction for women.

The asymmetry between wanting to know others and being known by them presents an inherent problem, because relationships require reciprocity: If I don’t do the work to know you deeply, a relationship doesn’t form in which you will know me. This vicious cycle—Poe syndrome again—is made much worse when you are lonely to begin with; researchers have demonstrated that loneliness can lead to self-centeredness. In other words, if no one knows you well and you are thus lonely, that may make you more self-focused and less interested in others, making it much less likely for others to want to get to know you well.

To begin to be truly known by others involves breaking out of Poe syndrome by proactively knowing them. This is one of the great secrets of socially successful people, such as politicians. For example, former President Bill Clinton was famous for making whomever he was talking to feel completely seen and understood. As one observer put it, “He has the ability to connect with an audience and then turn around and make the person who was helping with the slideshow feel like they’re the most important person there.”

This trait does not come naturally to many of us, though, as the author David Brooks (who is a friend but no relation) notes in his recent book, How to Know a Person. He observes that a lot of people are “Diminishers,” self-involved to the point that others feel small and unseen. Such Diminishers do this by speaking primarily about themselves—something that, studies show, most people do often—and by failing to ask questions. Brooks contrasts Diminishers with “Illuminators,” who are persistently curious about others, ask questions, and listen to the answers.

Being curious about others and asking genuine questions have strongly positive effects. For example, as my Harvard colleague Alison Wood Brooks (also no relation—I’m not doing this on purpose) and her co-authors have shown, asking a lot of questions (as opposed to just a few) on a first date will make you 9 percent more likable. If you also ask follow-up questions—which demonstrate even deeper interest in the other person—the odds that you’ll get a second date improve.

Follow-up questions demand actively listening to the other person, a practice essential to knowing them. In other words, you must pay attention to what they tell you, with an intent to learn from it. That contrasts with how we often listen during conversations, especially in academic settings: We’re waiting to talk. Real listening also requires being truly present and mindful when you are engaged with the other person—offering the gift of your whole self, undistracted by other matters or, God forbid, your devices. Research suggests that this combination of active listening and mindfulness is central to relationship quality.

So avoiding Poe syndrome in your life is remarkably simple. When you talk with others, remember this string of actions: Focus completely on the person, ask plenty of genuine questions about their life, listen carefully to their answers, ask thoughtful follow-up questions, and leave your phone in your pocket for the entire conversation. By showing genuine curiosity about a person in this way, you might get a second date, repair a frayed marriage, or start a good friendship. You will also be on your way to being truly known yourself—which is what your heart most desires.

And who knows what other benefits this ethic of knowing and being known might bring you? For me, the answer is this column. “How to Build a Life” is based each week not on bright ideas that spontaneously pop into my head but on conversations I have with real people I meet—at my university, on an airplane, or anywhere else a conversation strikes up.

I ask people a lot of questions about their life and their happiness. Invariably, what they tell me only brings up more things I want answers to—an appetite I try to satisfy by going off to read a lot of research and writing about it all here. I’ll never be a creative genius like Edgar Allan Poe, but knowing others works for me, and I’m a happier person to boot.

The Atlantic