When asked what the worst things in life are, most people would say tobacco, lack of exercise, drugs, too much alcohol, fast food, or even poor sleep. How about lack of deep, empathetic social connections? Research reflects what some cultures have known intuitively for millennia—the right kinds of social connections are as essential to our well-being as food, water, and air.
Researchers have long known about the importance of intimate relationships for infants and children, but connection needs are life-long. “Good social connections aren’t just important to living a fulfilling life—they’re vital to any type of healthy life at all,” Washington State University researcher Will Meek writes (1). Social connections affect our physical and emotional health. Psychologist Julianne Holt-Lunstad found that having a low level of social interaction is as bad for you as smoking 15 cigarettes a day (2). Other researchers have found that good social connectivity means greater ability to fight infections (3). There are some challenges to creating and sustaining connections in the modern world, however, including technology and expectations about what social connectivity is supposed to look like, expectations that can make it harder for those dealing with anxiety, isolation or depression.
“Social connection” does not equate with “social media.” As engaging as Facebook, texting, and technology are, they do not provide the in-person connections that are so good for us. Cell phone use may even harm our social consciousness, which we need to connect with others (4). It’s hard to connect when you are texting all the time. In marriage and relationship counseling, I help couples attune to each other. One way of doing this is turning off phones, ipads, and computers in the bedroom, during meals, and at other intimate times. If used judiciously, technology can help us stay in touch, but overdoing it distances us from the very connections we need most. The trick is to not check for texts every 5 minutes when connecting with a friend or partner.
The tone of social connection is especially important for some people. Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, describes feeling pressured to be like a cheerleader in groups—to be extraverted, loud, boisterous, happy, or flamboyant (5). These expectations are evident at workplace trainings, employee engagement days, clubs, in the media, and at public events. Such social expectations allow for only one way of interacting, a way not suited to all people all the time. This same tone can pervade small groups and even one-on-one connecting. Also, the focus of some social interactions can seem superficial to sensitive thinkers. Some people prefer deep conversations to passing ones about weather or sports, and they are not comfortable when light, jovial interactions are expected (5).
I work with clients dealing with depression, isolation, and social anxiety who tell me that they know going for a run, going to the gym, or joining toastmasters is good for them but they balk at such ideas. In part, they feel they do not have the energy ; it’s hard to get motivated for a run when you can barely get out of bed. And, verbally or nonverbally, there can be an implied judgment that if they do not get out there and do things then the depression or anxiety must be their own choice. Another reason is that these things are simply out of character—some people are just not gym personalities, runners, or toastmasters. A simple 10 to 15 minute stretching routine is often more realistic and effective for someone dealing with depression. Expecting everyone to connect in the same way is like expecting we should all drink raw eggs because they are good for us; the same approach is just not digestible for all. The key with social connectiing is finding people you can relate to, in ways which make sense to you. When you can do that, the benefits become available.
Being with others you deeply connect to reinforces that you are a good person to be around. Other benefits include the ability to love and be loved, mutual understanding, caring, validation of self-worth, security, acceptance of a wide diversity of ideas, being a source of celebration in good times and support in the bad, and, basically, having fun.
Here are a few easy ways to connect with others:
- Look for ways to connect with others (in a safe way). Something you enjoy doing is a good place to start—philosophical discussion groups, Mars Rover fan clubs, fishing buddies, golf friends, and tea nannies (as my aunt used to call herself and her group of friends) are created this way. Be sure to move from online to real-life interaction.
- Meet people in your neighborhood. I have several neighbors who carry biscuits for the dogs they meet on their walks; it’s a great way to connect with dog owners too.
- Start shallow and move into deeper waters. Have a coffee break with your co-worker or neighbor. If you find someone you connect with, set a future date or suggest a regular noon-hour walk. Conversations deepen with familiarity and trust.
- Look for the spaces between walls. In Mending Wall, Robert Frost’s writes, “Good fences make good neighbors.” Hallways at work, the fences around your yard, the path from the coffee shop to your office are great places to meet and talk because you are in an in-between place, a space everyone shares.
- Other ideas: A phone call to a sibling; a visit to a local church, community centre or other favorite place. If you meet someone you think you could connect to, invite him or her to join you for coffee or a “walk and talk.”
- Look for the signs of when others extend invitations. Sometimes, either verbally or non-verbally, it becomes a habit to say “no” without realizing it. Checking in with yourself can increase your awareness of your signals to others.
Emotionally, we are like fish, each with our own personality yet living in a sea of social connection. We work best by finding the climatic zone most suited to us and interacting from there. Good relationships are the element we need to breathe emotionally; breathing is good.
- Psychology Today, September/October 2012, p. 56.
- Psychology Today, September/October 2012, p. 61.
- Psychology Today, September/October 2012.
- Helen Yee Lin, Scientific American [online], September 4, 2012
- Cain, S. (2012). Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking