I was never very good at managing strong, intimate friendships when growing up. I was the girl that popped into your life for short periods and promptly popped out the other side. Fickle Fee is what I was nicknamed. When I was younger, I blamed my inability to foster long-standing friendships on the fact we moved a lot as a family and I had to adapt to different schools and with that came the anxiety of making new friends. However, later in life, I discovered not only the root cause of my behaviour, but the effect it had on others and went about making a concerted effort on the friendships and relationships that were important to me. I also discovered, albeit later in life, that social connections have a positive effect on your health and well-being.
Maslow lists social needs right after physiological and safety needs. Researchers have continued to explore how love and belonging needs impact our overall well-being.
In Dr Waldinger’s TED talk on what makes a good life, he discusses the findings of a 75-year-long research project following the lives of 724 men.
The clearest message that we get from this 75-year study is this: Good relationships keep up happier and healthier, period.Dr Waldinger, Harvard Psychiatrist, Psychoanalyst and Zen Priest
Quality over quantity
He explored the importance of quality over quantity in relationships, which got me thinking of my existing strong connections. One relationship that immediately came to mind was my relationship with my brother, Gavin. We spent some of our childhood years apart due to boarding schools, but we’ve always been able to pick up exactly where we left off and celebrate our strong brother/sister relationship.
Other than Gavin, I reflected on the few other deep connections and reminded myself that these special relationships are central to my life. They demonstrate to me how it feels to be accepted as I am and grow in a safe environment. In these settings, I continue to learn how to give and take in a way that benefits everyone involved. I make a concerted effort to look after my loved ones; they are winners!
This aspect in my life was challenged again, five years ago, when I moved to another country for work. Suddenly I found myself in my early 40s spending evenings and weekends alone. I longed for social connections outside of work and missed that safe place I had created in my previous life. I needed to find the courage to go out and meet new people, an undertaking that gets harder as you get older.
Most people in their forties and fifties have their networks and support structures in place, and a single woman can sometimes be an awkward addition to a dinner party. However, joining groups with similar interests enabled me to increase my local network. I joined yoga and writing classes, as these were two of my biggest hobbies. As I spoke to others in these classes, I discovered the power of storytelling and realised it was an effective tool for connecting.
My relationships are currently work in progress; you cannot rush these things, as they need to be authentic and reciprocal.
My four benefits I have found from having stronger connections:
Higher levels of happiness
Dr Waldinger points out in his TED talk on the Harvard Happiness Study that researchers have found that people who have more social connections to family, friends and community are happier, physically healthier and live longer than people with fewer social connections. Research suggests that those with healthy relationships report lower cases of depression and experience higher levels of happiness than those without.
Improved physical health
Social connections are not just niceties; they are one of the six pills of the American College of Lifestyle Medicine. At Lifestyle Medicine, they believe that poor lifestyle choices, which include a lack of social support and community, contribute to chronic disease. Therefore, they list social connections as one of their pillars, encouraging strong friendships and relationships amongst their patients. Research has also shown that social connections increase cognitive function and strengthen the immune system. As human beings, we have an innate yearning for connection that has an overall impact on our health.
I have proven to myself that, when I have healthy relationships with others, my feelings of self-worth improve. When I feel valued as a person, I thrive. I become more pleasant and less sensitive and needy. Everyone enjoys being around confident people, because confidence bleeds into others.
According to Dr Waldinger, ‘The world’s longevity all-stars not only live longer, but they also tend to live better. This is because they have strong connections with their family and friends. They’re active. And wake up in the morning knowing that they have a purpose, and the world, in turn, reacts to them in a way that propels them along. An overwhelming majority of them still enjoy life’.
Through these lessons and the work I have put in, I have discovered that not only are connections imperative, but they provide comfort, love and grounding: ‘significant pillars’ for overall well-being.