We are social beings and it is our inherent nature to form social relationships. According to psychologist Roy Baumeister, to fulfil this need, we seek relationships with those at work, at school, in our communities and religious organisations, on sports teams, in online communities, and in other social contexts to help us feel we are not alone.
Depriving people of social relationships can be physically and psychologically devastating (e.g. the harsh punishment of solitary confinement).
What Is Social Connection?
The concept of social connection refers to the feeling of belonging to a group and generally feeling close to other people. Scientific evidence strongly suggests that this is a core psychological need, essential to feeling satisfied with life.
Our drive to connect with others begins at birth, in our relationship with our caregivers and the effects of this relationship are life-long. When we are cared for as children, we are more likely to have healthy, secure attachments as we get older. Neuroscience highlights that our brains are wired to reach out and interact with others.
Positive social relationships and networks can promote health for people at any age through, for example:
- providing individuals with a sense of belonging and identity
- sharing knowledge on how to access health and other public information and services
- influencing behaviour, for example through support from family or friends to quit smoking, reduce alcohol intake, or to access health care when needed
- providing social support to cope with challenges such as pressures at school or work, or life changes such as becoming a new parent, redundancy, or even retirement
Our social networks and the quality of our relationships have a huge impact on our health, so it is important to understand which groups in society are particularly vulnerable to becoming socially isolated.
Some groups at increased risk of social isolation include new mothers, children and young people experiencing bullying, people with long-term conditions and disability, unemployed adults, carers and retired people. Many of the risk factors associated with social isolation are more prevalent among socially disadvantaged groups and accumulate throughout life; for example, social isolation in childhood is associated with isolation in adolescence and adulthood.
Healthy relationships support good mental health, while social isolation and poor relationships can be risk factors for mental health conditions like depression and anxiety. Part of building strong relationships is having good, open, and regular communication. This can be done by sharing your thoughts and feelings with family, friends and trusted work colleagues.
Some people find sharing personal information a natural and easy thing to do. Others might need support from a health professional or community group in order to feel more comfortable opening up.
The quality of your relationships is just as important as the number of people in your social network. Good mental health is linked to having a supportive network that you relax and have fun with, as well as call on in difficult times. We can sometimes be so busy that we lose touch with others, but making an effort to stay in touch can have huge benefits.
Things you can do to be more socially active:
- Call a friend or family member for a chat or arrange a catch up.
- If you don’t feel that you have anyone to call, reach out to acquaintances or neighbours.
- Spend less time in front of the TV or computer screen.
- Join networking, social, or special interest/community groups that meet on a regular basis.
- Go to a market to shop
- Don’t be afraid to smile and say hello to strangers you cross paths with.
- Take your children/pets to the playground/park.
- Consider volunteering, which lets you help others, can boost your self-esteem, and is a great way to meet new people.
According to Emma Seppala of the Stanford Centre for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, and author of the 2016 book The Happiness Track, people who feel more connected to others have lower levels of anxiety and depression. Studies show that they also have higher self-esteem, greater empathy for others, are more trusting and cooperative and, as a consequence, others are more open to trusting and cooperating with them.
Further reading and resources