This is the fourth and final post in a series about the three most important needs identified in psychological research to human health and happiness: autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Today, we’re rounding out the series with a discussion of the importance of human connection.
This third need, called “relatedness,” is the idea that we need to feel close to other people. You might be thinking, “Duh, Elly. Everyone needs people,” and you’re right. This need is likely one you’ve thought a lot about, and there’s a reason for that: because it’s so darn essential to human living.
Need For Human Connection: What the Research Says
To prove my point, here are just a few of the hundreds of studies on this need for human contact. The need for social connectedness is statistically linked to: self-esteem (Leary & Downs, 1995), depression (Peeters, Nicolson, Berkhof, Delespaul, & deVries, 2003), suicide risk (Christensen, Batterham, Mackinnon, Donker, & Soubelet, 2014), sense of vitality and life satisfaction (Léon & Liew, 2017), and positive and negative affect, meaning the emotional states you experience (Church, Katigbak, Locke, Zhang, Shen, Vargas-Flores, Ibáñez-Reyes, et al., 2013).
Moreover, lack of social connection is associated with a variety of adverse physical affects: heart disease, arthritis, Type II Diabetes, and Dementia. Interestingly, Dr. John T. Cacioppo from the University of Chicago performed an experiment with his colleagues that people who score high on loneliness eat larger quantities of fatty foods. So there’s that.
Loneliness is also liked to death… literal death. For instance, over time, Holt-Lunstad and colleagues (2015) found that loneliness was associated with a 26% increase in mortality. Elderly folks who feel lonely tend not to live as long. (Heartbreaking!)
So, I think I’ve made my point. This is the real deal. Think about it: if your doctor told you that you had high blood pressure and were at risk for having a heart attack, you would (hopefully) rearrange your priorities to address the serious health problem. Yet, research suggests lonely people are not only deeply unhappy, but also tend to live shorter lives. So, consider me your doctor, and consider your loneliness the serious health problem. Let’s get in to gear, people!
I want to make one thing clear: if you’re feeling lonely, if it seems like everyone else has wonderful friends and a vibrant social life, that’s could be your Facebook talking. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people say, “I just feel like I’m the only one who doesn’t have a solid friend group, or a best friend.” If that’s you right now, please know that the feeling is very normal and you’re not alone. Plus, the last thing I want to do is to give you anxiety about an impending and untimely death. Loneliness is likely not causing all your problems, and you’re going to be okay. Keep reading for a more hopeful message!
I know it can feel daunting to try to tackle some of those feelings of social isolation, but I find it helpful to remember than your feelings of loneliness are not wildly unpredictable or intangible; rather, they stem directly from your environment. This means that it’s not about changing your feelings, but about changing the environment you find yourself in.
Tacking Loneliness: Changing Your Environment
Here are some ideas of how to adjust your behavior to interact with your surroundings differently. Little by little, daily interactions with people you come into contact with can bloom into friendships. Here are some steps you can take to make it happen.
When most people say they don’t have friends, what they mean is that they don’t have people coming over for dinners on Tuesday night, or people they feel comfortable calling when they have a hard day. It’s important to remember that every friendship starts as an acquaintance, and at some point, you have to take a leap of faith to step from work-friend to friend-friend.
Start perusing for future pals in the people you interact with every week at your workplaces, classes, carpool, gym, etc. Is there anyone you have a funny banter with? Anyone you grumble about Mondays with? Anyone you admire or want to get to know better? Often times, we don’t think to reach out for friendship to people we see in a non-friendship-context, and they don’t think of it either!
If someone popped into your head as you started reading that last paragraph, try reaching out the next time you see them. Odds are, they’ll be flattered and happy to meet up. (I actually did this exact thing this week: I reached out someone I knew from class but had never hung out with and suggested we get together. We had coffee, a grand old time, and promised to do it again soon. Boom shakalaka!)
At the start of high school, I was struggling with some friendships and my mom gave me some great advice: she said that people like to be around others who make them feel good about themselves. When we are around people who we want to like us, we can get so caught up in trying to say or do the right thing to make ourselves look good.
Instead, if there’s someone you want to get to know better, try to focus on treating them with kindness. If they’re having a bad day, grab them a coffee. When they talk to you, really listen to what they have to say. If you like their shirt today, say so! Note: please don’t do this all in a single day. You’re shooting for friendship, not a restraining order.
My point is, be the kind of friend to others that you wish you had. Usually, people don’t want to pass that up. Also, remember that you a unique individual with a lot to offer, whether it’s your generosity, your ability to listen, or your sense of humor. Once people get to see who you are, I have no doubt they’ll want to stick around.