- Published: 1 February 2022
- ISBN: 9780143776802
- Imprint: Penguin
- Format: Trade Paperback
- Pages: 304
- RRP: $37.00
Managing fear and anxiety in an uncertain world
10. Staying Connected
Decades of research overwhelmingly shows that the number one factor that helps us adapt to challenging circumstances is social support.1 The more connected and supported we feel, the better we can adapt to and handle what is right in front of us.
We feel supported when we are cared for, when we know that help is available from others if we need it, and when we are part of a supportive social network. That support can come in many forms, from emotional support to the provision of information and advice, practical support like financial aid or help to get jobs done, and social support, or a sense of companionship and belonging.
And it’s not just actual support that counts. Even the perception that support is available should we need it can be enough to help lower our stress levels and ease mental distress, particularly if that support is from family and friends. Communities and agencies are also important because they form a wider part of the ecosystem from which we draw support. Although we might like to think of ourselves as autonomous individuals, we rely on others for support. We are built that way, whether or not we are consciously aware of it. No man, or woman, is an island.
A recent study by the American Enterprise Institute found that the proportion of people who can name six close friends has fallen drastically since the 1990s: from 55 per cent to 27 percent.2 Only 50 per cent of Americans said they have what they would describe as a best friend. Even more tellingly, their results suggest that the proportion of people who had no friends at all had alarmingly risen from 3 per cent to 12 per cent. For single men the situation was dire: one in five said they had no close friends.
Building up supportive relationships is one of the best things you can do to support your mental well-being in uncertain times,and to build your resilience in case of the inevitable future life challenges you will encounter. Having someone to confide in, be it a relative, a partner or a friend, is one of the most important forms of protection from becoming depressed when something bad happens. If you don’t have a close supportive relationship, or if your friends do not provide you with the support you need,then it’s worth making the effort to build up this support. It’s important to remember that the quality that seems to matter most is intimacy, not just the mere number of people you know. I don’t mean sexually intimate here — rather, the feeling of depth of connection; knowing that you are seen, valued and loved for who you are.
Building supportive, intimate relationships takes time and effort. As an immigrant to New Zealand from the other side of the planet, I know this only too well. It doesn’t happen overnight. When building relationships seems difficult, it is helpful to remember that it can be done at any stage of life and that there are many steps along the way.
1. Meet new people. Put yourself out there by making contact with groups of people with similar interests, neighbours, clubs, voluntary groups.
2. Build a friendship. Focus on shared experiences, activities and pleasures. Do things together. Don’t wait to be invited, be the one who suggests an activity and try to keep a lightness about their response to your invitation. If they say no, try not to take rejection personally. If the other person is also feeling isolated, they might find it hard to commit to someone or something new. Ask again another time, or ask someone else.
3. Consolidate friendships. Keep in touch. Make regular contact. Become a good listener as well as a good talker. Try to keep in contact even when you are not feeling social or embarrassed about imposing on someone.
4. Nurture your friendships. Look for ways to show you care, in good times and bad. Tolerate people’s moments of bad temper, grouchiness or silence. They happen, especially when we are stressed by the trials of modern life.
5. Use your friendships for mutual support. Don’t run away from people when you are feeling low. And don’t turn away from friends when they need someone to turn to. Try to offer a listening, empathetic ear — and remember, empathy works best with an action plan. Note, though, that a supportive relationship must not be a smothering one — we need our own independence and autonomy as well as support.
Of course, even if you have strong connections, the challenges of modern life mean it isn’t always possible to connect with people as often, or as deeply, as we might like. So, how can you cultivate your social well-being when life is already so full, you’re pressed for time, and you talk a good game but neglect the cultivation that’s necessary for good relationships?
The obvious solution is through technology. People often blame technology as a cause of loneliness, saying that we spend too much of life looking through our social media feeds and not enough time interacting in real life. But recent research paints a more subtle picture: how you use social platforms seems to matter more than how much you do so. We can all benefit from acquiring digital habits that reinforce meaningful human connections that nourish our relationships.
Here are some tips to help you connect with others using technology in socially and psychologically healthier ways.
1. Face to face from far away. Often (but not always), the next best thing to in-person communication is a video call, because facial cues, body language and other non-verbal communication are important for genuine connection and understanding. Try choosing video calls over messaging or calling, and experiment by doing things that you would usually do in person. For example,try digital dining with someone new that you meet on a dating app, a virtual coffee meeting with a colleague, or an evening book club meeting on a group call.
2. Practise 60-second kindness. Getting a lot of likes on a social media post may zap you with a shot of dopamine, but receiving a direct message or email with a genuine compliment is more intimate and lasts longer too —without taking much more time to compose and send. When you find yourself scrolling through posts on your feed, stop and send someone a few kind words. We could all do with a little extra kindness to offset the stress and uncertainty of modern life.
3. Broaden or deepen your connections. Essentially,there are two ways to overcome loneliness: nurture your current connections or make new ones. Think about your existing state of social health and then take one digital step to deepen it — such as getting in touch with a friend or family member you haven’t talked to in a while — or one digital step to expand and broaden it— such as reaching out to someone you’d like to get to know better.
4. Use a conversation prompt. Increasingly, apps and social media platforms are helping us optimise our internet interactions with friends and family. But also consider using conversation prompts just to mix things up a little. There are plenty available on the internet if you search for ‘conversation starters’, but here’s a few to get you started:
- What would be your perfect weekend?
- What’s the most practical thing you own?
- Who is your oldest friend? How did you meet them?
- If you had a theme song, what would it be? Why?
- If you could start a business, what kind of business would it be?
- Who in your life brings you the most happiness?
- Who has had the most profound impact on who youhave become?
- What is the most irritating habit someone can have?
- If you had to swap your name with someone, whowould you trade with?
5. Frequency beats duration. Okay, this is not always true, but it often helps to have quick, frequent check-ins, rather than less-frequent, longer conversations. My parents live half a world away, but I don’t call them once a week for along catch-up; I call them every day for a short time. That works for me and them — figure out what works for you and your loved ones.
6. It’s okay to be boring. We may not have much to report to each other but social connection is valuable even if there’s not much to say. Set up that video call to create an atmosphere of being together in parallel, even if you don’t want to ‘say’ anything.
Group calls can also be useful for older kids who need to be at home for some reason, or during vacations, to re-create the sense of being back in their peer or friendship group, or in a classroom or library. On a group call, they all do their work or thing silently (they put themselves on mute so they don’t hear the sounds of each other typing, etc.), but they can see each other, so they feel together and they can unmute themselves if they have something to say.
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