Social connection refers to a subjective feeling of understanding and being linked with others; this includes everything from friendships to intimate relationships.
Recent research demonstrated that lack of social ties was more detrimental to health than smoking or high blood pressure.
At its core, social connection is crucial. Our brains need a sense of security, care and purpose – that’s why social relationships matter so much!
Feeling of Belonging
Feelings of belonging are fundamental human needs, yet many can struggle to find or sustain them due to factors like social disconnection from others, broken family and community structures, technological advances and life changes – which all have been associated with mental health concerns.
We conducted this research with people living with long-term conditions to examine how they created or maintained a sense of belonging in their daily lives. Analysis of interview transcripts resulted in three main themes:
Our participants reported feeling at home in various communities. These ranged from within their family or friendship circles; to leisure groups and voluntary organisations further afield. It was found that all communities provided similar levels of satisfaction with life, participation diversity and intensity, meaningfulness; however it became apparent that certain communities offered different pathways or possibilities for individuals’ sense of belonging to flourish or fade away.
Feeling of Support
Self-care is essential, but social connections are equally vital. Feeling valued and cared about by others helps us feel valued and cared about – this is especially true for people living with long-term conditions who rely on their support network to manage their conditions effectively.
People in our social networks can provide us with feelings of support in various forms: friends and family, coworkers, religious institutions, community groups and other organizations can offer emotional, instrumental (such as providing meals when sick or transportation to doctor appointments), informational support or providing tips to manage our condition effectively.
Maintain a sense of support in your life by regularly engaging with those most important to you – this could involve face-to-face dialogue or simply exchanging humorous emails. In addition, expanding your support network through new connections (e.g. by joining book clubs or hiking groups).
Feeling of Purpose
Studies demonstrate the positive correlation between strong social ties and longer, healthier lives. Social isolation can contribute to heart disease, cancer, autoimmune disorders, high blood pressure and slow wound healing processes; furthermore a lack of connection can also increase depression and anxiety levels as well as posttraumatic stress disorder symptoms.
Patrick Hill recently co-authored a study which indicates that having a sense of purpose provides powerful protection from loneliness. According to this research, people who feel they have something meaningful they’re working toward (be it creating change for betterment in society or pursuing personal hobbies with personal significance) are less likely to report feelings of isolation.
A sense of purpose triggers the same reward system in our brain as connecting with others, and is linked with increased automatic emotion regulation in areas like the amygdala and ventral anterior cingulate cortex – two key elements in emotional resilience, protecting us against negative events while helping us recover quickly from setbacks.
Feeling of Safety
Emotionally safe environments allow us to be ourselves without fear of judgement from those closest to us or those we rely on for survival, so feeling unsafe when being ourselves (including expressing feelings) is vital in feeling connected. Feeling unsafe typically stems from feeling that those closest to us or those whom you rely upon consider the real you to be unacceptable or contemptible.
People who feel connected socially tend to feel more at ease in themselves and tend to experience less anxiety. This can result in improved mental and emotional health which in turn enhances immune function and increases life span.
There are various things you can do to increase your sense of social connection, from joining an online community to reconnecting with old friends, such as reaching out again after not communicating for some time, trying new activities such as golf or sports – or simply spending more time socialising. According to one study, those with strong relationships had a 50% greater chance of survival compared to people without such relationships.