Research shows that humans are hardwired for connection and strong relationships and both have a range of benefits for our physical and mental health. Here are six ways to strengthen your social connections.
If there’s one thing we learnt from the pandemic, it’s that social isolation can wreak havoc on our wellbeing. Studies have even shown that social ties are as important for our health as food, water and exercise.
“Our brains evolved to experience threats to our social connections in much the same way they experience physical pain,” writes UCLA neuroscientist Matthew D. Lieberman in his book Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect. “By activating the same neural circuitry that causes us to feel physical pain, our experience of social pain helps ensure the survival of our children by helping to keep them close to their parents. The neural link between social and physical pain also ensures that staying socially connected will be a lifelong need, like food and warmth.”
Social connectedness has been shown to reduce the risk of anxiety, depression, high blood pressure and obesity. Adults with strong social networks may even live longer than those without them.
While some people seem to be social butterflies by nature, others find it challenging to create and maintain meaningful social connections. Here are six ways to strengthen your existing relationships and boost your wellbeing in the process.
1. Focus on positive relationships
We all have relationships with friends, family members or colleagues that drain our energy or make us feel bad about ourselves. When you’re deciding which relationships to focus on strengthening, think about the people in your life who accept you as you are and lift your spirits.
2. Foster a variety of connections
There are three levels of connection we have with others:
- Intimate connections with close friends and family members
- Relational connections with co-workers and neighbours
- Collective connections with groups such as a sport team, volunteer group or church
Because we reap different benefits from each type of connection, fostering relationships at all three levels can have a positive impact on our sense of social connectedness and our wellbeing.
3. Identify common interests
While your active co-worker might love to catch up for a walk after work, your movie-buff mate may prefer to go to the cinema with you. Make a list of the activities you enjoy most and write down the names of people in your life who have the same interests. By identifying the passions you share with your connections, you’ll have a readily available roadmap to help you strengthen your relationships.
4. Reach out
If staying in touch with people isn’t your strength, make a plan to reach out to a friend or family member at least once a week. Whether you send them a text asking how they are, call them for a phone catch-up or ask them to meet you for coffee, every small gesture creates a building block for a stronger relationship.
5. Communicate openly and resolve conflict
When you share your thoughts and feelings with others, it encourages them to do the same and builds deeper connections. If conflict arises – which is likely to happen at some point in any close relationship – try to resist the urge to attack or shut the other person out. Walk away and take some deep breaths, if things are getting heated.
When you’re ready to address the situation, listen to the other person without interrupting and calmly tell them how you feel. Using ‘I’ statements (‘I feel disappointed that you didn’t invite me to the party’) rather than ‘you’ statements (‘You always leave me out’) is a more effective way to get your point across and resolve the conflict.
6. Express gratitude
Letting someone know that you appreciate them is a great way to solidify your connection. Expressing gratitude can be as simple as saying, ‘I always feel energised after our chats’ or writing them a heartfelt card for their birthday. It doesn’t have to be a grand gesture – it simply needs to be genuine.
Building stronger relationships starts with small steps but the pay-off, in terms of your mental and physical wellbeing, is undeniable. Your connections will probably thank you for reaching out to them and boosting their wellbeing too.
Article sources and references
- Better Health Channel. (2022, February 24). Strong relationships, strong health. Better Health Channel.https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/healthyliving/Strong-relationships-strong-health
- Cook, G. (2013, October 22). Why we are wired to connect. Scientific American.https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-we-are-wired-to-connect/
- headspace. (2021, September 21). Create connections for a healthy headspace. headspace.https://headspace.org.au/explore-topics/for-young-people/create-connections/
- Young S. N. (2008). The neurobiology of human social behaviour: an important but neglected topic. Journal of psychiatry & neuroscience: JPN, 33(5), 391–392.
- Vassiliadis, K. (2016, January 4). Social networks as important as exercise and diet across the span of our lives. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.https://uncnewsarchive.unc.edu/2016/01/04/social-networks-as-important-as-exercise-and-diet-across-the-span-of-our-lives/
- Whitbourne, S.K. (2015, January 27). 17 Rules to Guide You Through Any Conflict. Psychology Today.https://www.psychologytoday.com/au/blog/fulfillment-any-age/201501/17-rules-guide-you-through-any-conflict
- Yang, Y. C., Boen, C., Gerken, K., Li, T., Schorpp, K., & Harris, K. M. (2016). Social relationships and physiological determinants of longevity across the human life span. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 113(3), 578–583.
- Your Mental Wellbeing. (2020). Activities for a stronger mental wellbeing. Queensland Health.https://mentalwellbeing.initiatives.qld.gov.au/activities?field_activity_type_target_id=16