”Of all the means which are procured by wisdom to ensure happiness throughout the whole of life, by far the most important is the acquisition of friends.” – Epicurus
In ancestral times, being part of a community was vital to our survival.
There’s now considerable evidence that suggests that, on the whole, compared with people in previous decades, we spend less time with family and friends.
We have fewer close friends and are less involved in our communities. This affects our physical health as well as our mental health - research shows that the health risk of social isolation is comparable to the risks of smoking, high blood pressure and lack of exercise.
It’s not surprising then, that The Mental Health Foundation calls relationships “the forgotten foundation of mental health and wellbeing”. They explain:
”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.”
The longest-running study on happiness found that the quality of our social connections is the single biggest predictor of happiness.
Our relationships have more power over our happiness than genes, IQ, social class, money, or fame.
The director of the study, Robert Waldinger, notes, "People who are more isolated than they want to be from others find that they are less happy, their health declines earlier in midlife, their brain functioning declines sooner, and they live shorter lives than people who are not lonely."
Interested in learning more about the longest-running study on happiness? Here’s Waldinger’s TED Talk.
When it comes to priorities for mental wellbeing, it’s clear that our relationships deserve a top spot.
You might be interested to know that working on your mental wellbeing could result in you feeling more sociable.
It’s been found that compared with people experiencing a neutral mood, people experiencing positive mood show greater sociability, sense of connection, self-disclosure, trust in others, and compassion.
Plus, the more time people devote to generating positive emotions in themselves, the more pleasant their interactions with others become. Psychologist Barbara Fredrickson, a leading researcher in the field of positive emotions, labels this the ‘upward spiral’ of positive emotions and health.
Her research suggests social connection is a key factor in happiness and is associated with changes in our vagus nerve, an important component of the parasympathetic nervous system which controls our relaxation response.
Fredrickson carried out a study exploring this with Bethany Kok and colleagues in 2013. Half of the study participants attended a 6-week loving-kindness meditation (LKM) course.
In the course, they practiced cultivating positive feelings of love, compassion and goodwill toward ourselves and others. They were asked to practice meditation at home, but how often they meditated was up to them. The other half of the participants remained on a waiting list for the course.
For two months, participants in both groups reported their meditation, prayer, or solo spiritual activity, their emotional experiences and their social interactions within the last day. Their vagal tone - the activity of their vagus nerve - was assessed twice, once at the beginning and once at the end of the study.
The findings suggested that positive emotions, positive social connections, and vagal tone does indeed give rise to an upward-spiral dynamic.
They found that greater positive emotions prompted people to see themselves as more socially connected. Over time, as moments of positive emotions and positive social connections increased, vagal tone also improved.
”The daily moments of connection that people feel with others emerge as the tiny engines that drive the upward spiral between positivity and health."
Interested in building a LKM habit? Download the free app Insight Timer (Apple link, Google Play link) and search "Loving Kindness Meditation UCLA" to get easy access to this meditation on your phone.
Social connection is a core basic need that helps make us the happiest, healthiest versions of ourselves.
Failure to address this need is arguably the biggest root cause of distress in the 21st century.
Suffering from loneliness? Be sure to check out The Relationship Challenge in The Mental Wellbeing Toolkit if you're interested in practical resources to help you improve the quality of your relationships.