The need for connection and community is primal, as fundamental as the need for air, water, and food.
You may prefer to be on your own, you may be an introvert, but time after
time studies show that connection with others is key to our health.
Studies consistently show that individuals with the lowest level of involvement
in social relationships are more likely to die than those with greater social
connection and active involvement.
Several recent review articles provide consistent and compelling evidence
linking a low quantity or quality of social ties with a host of conditions,
including development and progression of cardiovascular disease, recurrent
myocardial infarction, atherosclerosis, autonomic dysregulation, high blood
pressure, cancer and delayed cancer recovery, and slower wound healing
There is now no doubt of the importance of connection and relationships on our health. Relationships are one of the most important aspects of our lives, yet we can often forget just how crucial our connections with other people are for our physical and mental health and wellbeing. Being part of a community helps us feel connected, supported and gives us a sense of belonging. Involvement in local activities, such as volunteering, belonging to a club with shared interests, or playing sports as part of a team, have been shown to improve health and wellbeing, especially mental health.
In my youth it was about neighbourliness, where local communities were built around families and neighbours. Nowadays, people hardly know their neighbours. I know my five neighbours only in as much as we say “hello” if we meet in the car park. When I moved in to my area, I tried to get to know my neighbours but it was clear they did not communicate with each other and did not want to include me into their “circle.” More and more there are reports in our newspapers as to how this lack of neighbourliness is negatively impacting our lives.
We need a paradigm shift, a sea change in thinking about relationships. Instinctively, we know that relationships are important. However, for many of us, our approach to building and maintaining relationships is very passive – it is something we just take for granted that will happen, it is something we just do subconsciously and without deliberate, conscious effort. We often overlook that it requires an investment of time to create, build, and maintain good relationships. Yet on the other hand, when it comes to keeping physically well, we simple accept that movement and eating well require commitment and dedication – until good habits become second nature. We need to adopt a similar approach to building and maintaining good relationships especially in the technological age where how we interact and form relationships has transformed considerably over the past decade. The evolving family structure where we no longer eat together or if we do we each have an application of some kind as we eat, our resultant development and reliance on online technologies, longer working hours, and changes in how we define and engage with community mean that who we connect with and how we connect may never be the same again.
What do we mean by relationships and connection?
These can be defined as the way in which (a) we are self-aware and communicate with our bodymind and it with us, and (b) when two or more people connect, are connected, or the state of being connected. Relationships are about the intimate relationships we have with any partner we may have, those we form with our parents, siblings and other relatives, and those we form with our friends, work colleagues, teachers, healthcare and social care professionals and our various communities eg church, spiritual group, special interest group etc.
As we age there is a danger that we know fewer and fewer people; social isolation of otherwise healthy, well-functioning individuals eventually results in psychological and physical disintegration, and even death.
In days of yore, when we knew our neighbours and our families lived nearby, we had someone to rely on in times of stress, such as a family member, spouse or friend; today we are becoming a society that feels lonelier than we ever have done before. This is soon through the changing nature of our society. Technology has given us the means to be more in contact but the reality is we have become more isolated. It is the neurochemical response that occurs during face-to-face interactions that contributes to wellbeing and this is lost when our only means of connection is through technology.
People who are more socially connected to family, friends, or their community are happier, physically healthier and live longer, with fewer mental health problems than people who are less well connected.
It’s not just the number of friends you have, and it’s not whether or not you’re in a committed relationship, but it’s the quality of your close relationships that matters. Living in conflict or within a toxic relationship is more damaging than being alone.
Recognising the importance of good relationships and defining new ways of developing and maintaining strong social connections are integral to our wellbeing as a community and as a nation.
The changing nature of relationships
Communities are changing from the traditional neighbourhoods where everyone knew each other. And people looked out for each other. This is due to the impact of longer working hours, differing family structures, more movement and fluctuation in where we live, and the emergence of, and modern society’s reliance on, online technologies and social media.
Over the past few decades, social scientists have demonstrated a clear link between relationships and health. Adults who are more socially connected are healthier and live longer than their more isolated peers. Studies show that relationships have both short- and long-term effects on health, for better and for worse, and that these effects begin in childhood and permeate all of life, negatively and positively.
For many of us, the holidays mean family gatherings, getting together with friends, and participating in special religious, community, and workplace activities. In Scotland we had, and some senses still have , the notorious Glasgow Fair, Aberdeen Trades - set holiday periods in the year for all major industries and employers. Such occasions are an opportunity to check in with each other, exchange ideas, and perhaps lend a supportive ear or shoulder.
Social connections like these not only give us pleasure, they also influence our long-term health in ways every bit as powerful as adequate sleep, exercise, a good diet, and not smoking. Many studies have shown that people who have good quality relationships with family, friends, and their community are happier, have fewer health problems, and live longer. Conversely, a lack of social connection is associated with depression and later-life cognitive decline, as well as with increased mortality.
Many of us use social media or online networking as a way of being or at least feeling connected to our “friends” and families and to increase feelings of belonging with others. Yet, despite the increased use of online communication, almost half of internet users in the UK reported that the internet had not increased their contact with friends or family who had moved away.
While online communities can help us connect, they can also be damaging and confuse our understanding of who our true friends really are. A contact or a simple tweet does not a friend make. Social media can expose people to unhealthy communication, including trolling and abuse. We need as a society, not just governments and social media platforms, to evolve to become skilled in developing and sustaining healthy online relationships. Research suggests that the on-line world cannot replace the importance and necessity of our offline relationships
Elders in Okinawa, Japan, one of the original “Blue Zones” longevity hotspots, where people live measurably longer lives, live extraordinarily better and longer lives than most other people in the world. In small neighbourhoods across Okinawa, friends “meet for a common purpose” (sometimes daily and sometimes a couple days a week) to chat, chill out, gossip, experience life, and to offer each other support and advice and even financial assistance when needed. They call these groups their moai - one of their longevity traditions. They are social support groups that start in childhood and extend for as long as people live, way into the 100s. The term originated hundreds of years ago as a means of a village’s financial support system in which people in the moai pooled the resources of an entire village for projects or public works. If an individual needed money to buy land, take care of an emergency, develop a project, then the only way was to pool money locally. Today the idea has expanded to become more of a social support network, a cultural tradition for built-in companionship.
Are you lonely?
Do you feel lonely?
Do you have a good quality social network?
What health conditions do you have that are due to lack of relationships?
What would be the purpose and reasons for creating or joining a community?
What are your values and what values do you want to be aligned within a community?
How often do you want to engage with your community (ex: daily, weekly, monthly, etc.)?
What do you have to offer the group and what do you want to receive? How can you share and collaborate?
How do you want to organise your community (ex: Facebook group, Meetup, Google group, in-person meeting, dinner party etc.)?
The Radical Healer believes we could all benefit from a greater focus and consciousness on the quality of our relationships and on community. We need to understand how fundamental relationships are to our health and wellbeing. No man is an island, We cannot flourish as individuals without others, and communities are not communities without relationships. In fact, they are just as vital as established lifestyle factors such as eating well, exercising more, sleeping well, and stopping smoking.
Be a conscious relater
Give conscious time and effort: unless you consciously put more time and effort aside to connect with friends and family, life will take you over. No more mindless texts and tweets.
Be present when present: when you are with others, be there 100%. It can be tempting to check your phone, Facebook messages and tweets or even work emails when with family and friends but those are distractions, some might deem it rude of you to not give them attention. If your intention is to be with friends give them your attention, be with them, not your technology.
Listen, don’t just hear: actively listen to what others are saying in a non-judgemental way and concentrate on their needs in that moment. Summarise what they have just said, tune into and feedback their feelings. This shows you are listening and makes you an active connecter and relater.
Be listened to: sometimes the agenda needs to be about you, you need to be listened to. Tell people you need some space, not to be interrupted. Share what’s going on in your life, how you are feeling, honestly, and allow yourself to be listened to and supported. If people make suggestions, take them away and consider them don’t just come back with a quick retort such as, “Oh that wouldn’t work.”
Recognise unhealthy relationships: being around positive people can make us happier; however, our wellbeing can be negatively affected by harmful relationships, leaving us unhappy. Recognising this can help us move forward and find solutions to issues.