Image credit @danedeaner

The Power of Social Connection

As we are a social species, connection, collaboration and cooperation are fundamental human needs. The works of evolutionary psychologist, Michael Tomasello and social neuroscientist, John Cacioppo, demonstrate how social connection has aided our survival over millennia and how when deprived of that connection, (isolation), we whither – physically, intellectually, emotionally and psychologically. The American Psychological Association classes the strength of our social connections – our support network – as one of the most important factors in building our personal resilience and in coping with challenges and setbacks in times of stress.

Learning from Personal Experience of Adversity

2015 was a very testing year for me, and one where my levels of personal resilience were very much tested. Following my divorce, there had been numerous changes in my personal and financial circumstances. I found myself with limited income security, but increased responsibility. I had to set up a new home for myself and my children, in which 50% of the time I was a single parent and 50% of the time I lived alone – something I had never done before. I had to rediscover who I was and find a new way of ‘being’.  It was challenging at times and downright emotionally and physically exhausting at others.

Living the principles of Positive Psychology helped me to ride the storm that year. Just as Barbara Fredrickson[1] promises, harnessing more positive emotions helped to build my resilience and cultivated a growth mindset[2]. Looking for, appreciating and expressing gratitude for the positives in my day, every day, showed me just how much I had to be thankful for, despite the challenges. The power of altruism in action worked its magic: offering help and support to others, helped me redefine who I am and the person I wanted to be. Sharing and celebrating all the successes I had had along the way, however small, reinforced how celebrating achievement can rebuild self-esteem. 

However, nothing was more crucial in my journey than the support I received from friends and family around me. In the brilliant ‘The Happiness Advantage’[3], Shawn Achor tells the story of his training in the Texas Fire Service. In the midst of flames, smoke, searing heat and low oxygen levels, his partner was literally his lifeline. His point? To invest in our social network in times of distress, not hide away from it, like so many of us are prone to do when the going gets tough. In ‘Love 2.0’[4], Barbara Fredrickson highlights how even everyday ‘moments of connection’ – authentic eye contact and a friendly smile – can build ‘social resources’. The great Martin Seligman advocates the building of positive relationships as one of the 5 elements that lead to ‘flourishing’ or thriving (the ‘R’ in his PERMA model)[5].

Although advocated by all of these giants of Positive Psychology, I didn’t need the academic endorsement to understand the value of what I had that year. The help, love, generosity, ‘shoulders to cry on’ and ‘ears to bend’, given to me freely by lifelong friends and by those I’d only gotten to know relatively recently,  were my salvation. Without them and their kind patience, I would have surely struggled and maybe would not have been in a balanced enough place to achieve what I have done since.

Fastforward to the COVID-19 Crisis

So now we find ourselves in 2020, which is turning out to be a very tough and challenging year for all of us. Even more difficult given the need for social distancing and isolation. The path of least resistance for some of us, could be to respond to the anxiety and emotional difficulty by hiding away in our homes and avoiding connection with others. But this would only serve to increase the anxiety, exacerbate feelings of depression and lead to reduced ability to cope.

Personally, during this pandemic, I have been drawing upon my experiences in 2015, using the strategies I know worked well for me then, to help me cope now. I have been investing in connection with people – not just those I care about via FaceTime, Zoom, Skype and phone calls, but also investing in micro moments of connection with people in my community. Calling out ‘hello’ to fellow runners and dog walkers when out for my daily exercise; smiling, making eye contact and joking with fellow shoppers as we do our 2m social distance ‘dance’ round each other down the aisles of the supermarket; making the effort to drop a text message to check-in with people I’ve maybe not connected with for a while, to ensure they are well and coping.

Unsurprisingly I have found these connections not only bolstering but uplifting. The sense of community for example, that has been created by #clapforourcarers (in the UK, every Thursday at 8pm, we stand on our doorstep and give our thanks to the NHS and other frontline workers by clapping, banging saucepans and whistling) gives me hope and reminds me that we are all in this together. My hope is, that as tough as this situation is, if we can come together, invest in our support network, make new social connections, collaborate, then maybe out of this adversity can come some resilience, for us as individuals and as communities. And maybe what we learn and what we build as resources during this crisis, can help us all to cope better and more resourcefully with setbacks and challenges we will face in the future.

As humans we always have been, and always will be, better together.

[1] Fredrickson, B (2011), Positivity: Groundbreaking Research to Release Your Inner Optimist and Thrive. Oneworld Publications.

[2] See Dweck, C, (2012). Mindset: How You Can Fulfil Your Potential. Robinson.

[3] Achor, S (2011), The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology that Fuel Success and Performance at Work. Virgin Books.

[4] Fredrickson, B (2014), Love 2.0: Finding Happiness in Moments of Connection. Plume.

[5] Seligman, M, (2011), Flourish: A New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being – and How To Achieve Them. Nicholas Brealey.