The Power of Relationships and Connection in Positive Psychology
by Scott Bidmead on May 26, 2022
If the global pandemic has taught us anything it is the importance of connection. Social isolation and loneliness has been a constant for all of us. Thrust into a deeper understanding of what disconnection feels like. The significance of relationships and human connection has been made real and tangible and fucking painfully evident during this time of lockdowns and loss. As we rebuild and life returns to a semblance of normalcy, this serves as the single greatest example of the importance of connection in human history. It also showed us that regardless of the external, with some creativity, we can still maintain and deepen our connection to others, and to ourselves.
The importance of these connections is again revealed in ‘Individual Psychology’, a theory founded by Austrian psychiatrist Alfred Adler. Adler believed that there are three basic life task: work, friendship and love or intimacy. The work task is realised when work is meaningful. The friendship task through satisfying relationships, and love through learning to love oneself and others. Adler proposed that you must separate your “life tasks” — the things you can control — from the life tasks of those around you (that is, people around us and their thoughts and actions). You can’t control what other people think of you or whether they take advantage of you, so approach relationships with trust. His approach is grounded in self-acceptance. Control what you can control and have the ‘courage to be disliked’ as this means you are living life on your terms.
An extensive study called “The Happy Few” actually compared why the populations of certain nations such as the Nordic countries are happier than others. The results showed that social capital (aka connection) was the defining factor that explains why some nations are happier than others.
Connection is also vital for resilience and weathering the storm of life. Losing a romantic relationship taught me the power of the other meaningful relationships in my life. The mates you grab a beer with and who help distract you, the advice from your family who listen to your ranting and raving with open ears. Social relationships are a necessary condition for happiness. If you don’t have strong relationships in clinical terms you aren’t likely to end up as someone characterised as happy. In the words of Brene Brown, “Connection is why we are here, it’s what gives us meaning and purpose in life”. We are social creatures, we are designed to connect, build relationships and do shit together. Martin Seligman explained it after running countless studies with huge test groups from all over the world, “Positive relationships with family, friends and one’s significant other can drastically affect well-being, both positively and negatively”. Isolation and loneliness are also proven to have negative impacts. One study showed that people who are lonely show higher levels of inflammation and lower immune systems. Our bodies physically manifest the negative impacts of lacking in social connection and positive relationships. Low social connection is worse for us than obesity, smoking and high blood pressure. In studies of cultures from all over the world, it has been found that well-being is consistently influenced by the quality of human relationships.
Awareness of this is the first step and it is great to know that there are simple tools to strengthen your relationships or build new ones. One of the factors at play here is good ol’ oxytocin. When engaging in connection with others, oxytocin moves through your brain and bloodstream and feels really, really good – it’s a neurochemical enabler for trust and kindness. It’s a neuro peptide that is just the ideal shot of goodness that can help us build and maintain bonds, increase connection and it can also quieten our stress responses. I could go on and on. The main thing is that we can look at ways to tap into this and experience more levels of it by exposing ourselves to environments that facilitate its release, such as physical contact, overcoming stressful environments together, sharing feelings of love, eye contact, giving and, yeah, you get the idea, do nice warm and fuzzy stuff and you will be rewarded with more of the same and a double dosing of the ‘cuddle hormone’. Extra incentive? Studies show the more oxytocin you release, the easier it becomes to do so.