Take a moment, close your eyes if you feel comfortable and try to picture the last time that you truly felt happy? Where were you and who were you with?
Each person’s happy memory will be different, but for many, you may remember a time when you were with other people, people who you value and feel special to you. That feeling of connection is an essential part of mental well-being.
Humans are born to connect. We are born extremely immature by comparison to other mammals; therefore, we need caregivers. By necessity, we have evolved to connect.
Meaningful connection is good for us
The need for connection does not end with our childhood or even our adolescence. Research shows that being connected to others throughout our lives improves both our mental well-being and physical health for people of all ages.
Being with people who care about us, are interested in us, support us, value us, love us (despite our flaws) and who can distract us when necessary are all positive qualities of relationships that contribute to us functioning well in the world.
Research into loneliness
Conversely loneliness has become a very real concern in the health field, and this has led to much research in recent years. Loneliness is thought to be part of our evolutionary design. It works to warn us when something essential for our survival – social connection – is missing.
Therefore, if we can learn to respond to loneliness, like thirst and hunger, instead of ignoring it or giving in to it, we might be able to reduce both its duration and negative effects and actually improve the overall quality of our lives.
Dr Helen Stokes-Lampard – former Chair of Royal College of GPs used her inaugural speech to talk about loneliness and the struggles of her patients.
She said ‘Social isolation and loneliness are akin to a chronic long-term condition in terms of the impact they have on our patients’ health and wellbeing. They are not medical conditions. They are not something that can be treated with pharmaceuticals or that can be referred for further treatment in secondary care. But they must be addressed if we are to be patient-centred in our approach’.
Understanding the impact of loneliness on both physical and mental health has led to the development of ‘social prescribing’ in many UK GP practises.
How much connection do you need?
Everyone’s level of need for social connection is different, it’s impossible to say how many friends are required to prevent loneliness. Levels of need vary over the lifespan and with personality type. Some people need more social connection than others but both introverts and extroverts can experience loneliness.
One thing is for sure, everyone needs strong social relationships in order to feel a secure sense of belonging. What matters is not the quantity of relationships but on the quality of connection and how we feel about them.
‘Call it a clan, call it a network, call it a tribe, call it a family. Whatever you call it, whoever you are, you need one. You need one because you are human’.
Jane Howard, Families
Finding connection elsewhere
Connection is not just about people though. Connection can be about animals and nature. There are many people who derive huge amounts of pleasure from being around animals, caring for a pet, or getting involved with caring for animals through a local community group.
For many people, animals are simply more accepting than people, more understandable, more predictable and more outwardly loving.
Some people find that when they connect with nature. Nature feeds their soul, and they feel connected to something bigger than themselves; connecting to nature can become almost a spiritual experience.
While some people love being near the sea, some prefer the hills, forests, parks and lakes. Some people find that their mood dictates where they want to be. For me, some days I love the energy that comes from a wild sea but on other days I find that experience a bit too much so find a nearby park more appropriate for my mood.
Encouraging a more mindful connection
This month, would you join me in trying to do something different and make a meaningful connection?
Try to tune in to yourself to work out what works for you in general, and what works for you on a day-by-day basis.
What am I doing that helps my sense of connection?
What do I need to do more of – if anything?
What might I need to do less of in order to connect more?
Here are some suggestions:
• Talk to someone instead of sending an email/text
• Speak to someone new or connect with a friend you haven’t seen in a while
• Ask how someone’s weekend was and really listen when they tell you
• Spend time with nature, pets or animals
• Walk with a friend.
• Cook someone a lovely meal
Practising Attuned Communication
In order to connect we need to understand how to tune in to ourselves and others.
Attuned communication involves:
• Listen carefully
• Acknowledge Emotional State – Regulated/Dysregulated of yourself and the person with whom you are connecting.
• Check in that you are understanding their words and feelings.
• Listen and engage the person through discussion or activity
• Only after this would you discuss any plans or actions you/they need to take.
Meaningful connection can be a wonderful, enriching experience.
However, please remember to be kind to yourself, remember to listen to your body and your inner voice to understand what you are experiencing. Please don’t feel that you have to force yourself to be around others. Remember that whilst meaningful connection is good for your well-being, sometimes a measure of solitude is good for you too. After all, well-being is all about balance.