Breathing Space April 2023
A Sense of Social Connectedness
I have been struck by how clear the research is about the importance of social connection. Some researchers actually feel that it is the key to happiness.
That’s what Harvard’s decades-long Study of Adult Development discovered by following the lives of hundreds of people over eighty years, from the time they were teenagers all the way into their nineties. The massive longitudinal study revealed that the people who ended up happiest were the ones who really leaned into good relationships with family, friends, and community. Close relationships were better predictors of long and pleasant lives than money, IQ, or fame.
Psychiatrist George Vaillant, who led the study from 1972 to 2004, summed it up like so: “The key to healthy aging is relationships, relationships, relationships.”
Other studies have found evidence that social connections boost not only our mental health but also our physical health, helping to combat everything from memory loss to fatal heart attacks.
Happiness researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky makes what feels like an obvious connection. She says, “I do a lot of research on kindness, and it turns out people who help others end up feeling more connected and become happier.”
Lyubomirsky’s research shows that committing any type of kind act can make you happier, though you should choose something that fits your personality (for example, if you don’t like kids, then reading to them might not be for you). You may also want to vary what you do because once you get used to doing something, you start taking it for granted and don’t get as much of a boost from it. By contrast, people who vary their kind acts show an increase in happiness immediately afterward and up to one month later. So, you might call to check up on a lonely friend one day, deliver groceries to an older neighbor the next day, and make a donation the day after that.
Lyubomirsky makes the following suggestions for maintaining a solid social connection:
- Maintain contact with existing friends and reconnect with your old friends. Make an effort to carve out time to be with the people you care about.
- Remember that it’s not the quantity of social relationships but the quality that really matters. An introvert might need one confidante not to feel lonely, whereas an extrovert might require two, three, or four bosom buddies.
- If you use social media, use it as a way station; use Facebook so that you can meet up somewhere. If it’s used as a destination, as a place to withdraw socially and interact as an inauthentic self, it can deepen your sense of loneliness and isolation.
- Create a setting where people can let their guards down and safely confide in each other. Practice speaking about your feelings with authenticity and listening to others nonjudgmentally and with empathy and compassion.
- One of the best ways to forge and maintain friendships is through built-in regularity—something you can plan around that is always on the schedule at least twice a month. This might include meeting with your support group on a regular basis, gathering around the table to play games, or planning an activity with family or friends that requires preparation and training together, such as a challenging hike.
So go out there and connect!
Sources: Harvard Medical School. (n.d.). Harvard Second Generation Study. https://www.adultdevelopmentstudy.org; and Lyubomirsky, S. & Porta, M. (2010). Boosting happiness, buttressing resilience: Results from cognitive and behavioral interventions. In J. W. Reich, A. J. Zautra, & J. S. Hall (Eds.), Handbook of adult resilience (pp. 450–464). Guilford Press.