This year I’ve been especially interested in understanding the role that social connection plays in wellbeing. While the debate continues to rage over what we should eat and whether we really need to exercise or simply move more in daily life, a growing body of research is suggesting that, while there may be multiple paths to health, none of these should be walked alone.
Humans have, as far as we know, always been social creatures. As far as we can tell, when left to their own devices, early humans banded together in clans, villages and tribes of around 150 people, agreed ways to maintain law and order, divvied up the work and supported each other in carrying out the daily tasks needed to sustain the group.
The seminal work by Dunbar argued that the original number represented the maximum number of people we could actually know by face and have some form of interaction with on a regular basis. Nowadays, he suggests the number reflects the number of people you know (and like) well enough to have a drink with at a bar, if you ran into them by chance. Interestingly, that number – sometimes called Dunbar’s number – hasn’t really shifted throughout history.
Your close circle is much smaller – usually around five people – though the impact of these people may be stronger than you think. More on that in a minute!
A necessary evil or our greatest source of joy? Or both?
Early explanations of why we bonded together into groups focused heavily on the survival benefits of joining forces. Taking down a mammoth, bringing in a harvest or fending off a warring tribe is much easier done with others than going it alone. In this thesis, hell is other people but you have to keep them around in order to live. Because of this certain behaviours such as co-operation and altruism have developed (in certain people) in order to ensure the cohesion and continuation of the tribe.
As the basic survival needs met by these groups have largely disappeared in the western world, researchers have turned their attention to understanding what other needs these communities might meet. And they’ve found some really interesting things about the social side of life.
The seminal work on relationships in relation to wellbeing is probably that done in the town of Roseto. Roseto is a town in the US settled by Italian immigrants whose residents reported significantly lower levels of heart disease than the American population at large. Researchers figured this was due to differences in diet and lifestyle and headed out to investigate more closely so that they could take this knowledge back and disseminate it to other groups.
What they found surprised them. The residents of Roseto were not starting the day with a green smoothie before heading off to the gym. More likely they’d be found sitting in the sun, glass of wine in one hand, cigarette in the other enjoying some salted meat and cheese while they passed the time chatting to their neighbour. And yet, the good health continued right up until the next generation left the town and went out into the world.
To cut a long story short, the researchers concluded that the social connections and strong sense of community experienced on a daily basis by the residents of Roseto actually served as a protective force, countering, in many cases, the potential harm that could have come from their diet and lifestyle choices. A big part of this was down to the dampening effect close relationships have on stress and, the lack of loneliness experienced in the town.
Fast forward fifty years and the brilliant work done by Dan Buetner on The Blue Zones project confirms the thesis. The longest living, happiest and healthiest people live in places where social contact is a valued part of life. From stopping to chat to the neighbour on the way into town to buy bread, to daily catch up sessions with your chums from school, to sharing a cup of tea after church, the more social contact with other members of your community, the better for your health.
Conversely, recent research suggests that feelings of loneliness can actually contribute to the development of heart disease, especially amongst women. The mechanism by which this happens isn’t completely understood though it’s believed to due both to an increase in risk raising behaviours – working long hours, drinking etc. – and the absence of regular close, social contact as a protective factor.
The invisible hand of the network
In the fascinating book ‘Connected’ the authors present a compelling case for why humans have created and continue to maintain social networks, then go on to show the (sometimes scary) impact these networks can have on everything we think, do and feel.
Remember those five friends that most of us have? Well you might have heard that you are basically a reflection of these five people and this kind of makes sense right? Your choose your friends because you like them and share similar views and beliefs and then they influence you and you influence them as you make your way through life.
But, what about your friend’s friends, or your friend’s, friend’s, friend’s? Well according to the authors this is the degree of influence you exert over your network and, the degree of influence people (who you probably don’t know) exert over you.
Using sophisticated modelling and a number of case studies they show that our social networks influence everything from our emotional state, experience of physical ailments, whether you gain or lose weight, stick to an exercise regime, adopt certain political views, change your consumption behaviour and so on – up to 3 degrees of separation.
Moreover the happiness of the network to which you’re both connected will also increase for up to a year. So befriending a happy person in and of itself could increase your happiness and that of your friends and their friends and their friend’s friends.
Or you could be that happy friend and help to spread the joy!
Unfortunately, it also works the other way with less pleasant emotions spreading in the same way, which leads me to ask the question.
Is the stressedemic a socially transmitted disease?
Emotional states, ideas and behavioural norms all spread like wildfire in a social network through a complex series of mechanisms. First off emotional states are contagious so the more stressed out people we encounter in our social circle, the more stressed out we are likely to feel – even if nothing has actually changed about our own circumstances.
Secondly, the idea of stress, once seeded, begins to take root. Think for a minute about how you know how you are supposed to respond to certain things happening in your life? In large part this is down to social cues. So if you meet up with a number of friends and tell them about what’s happening at work and they all respond with ‘that sounds stressful’ pretty soon, you will come to understand that this is how you are expected to respond to this experience, even if you hadn’t previously felt stressed.
Thirdly, as the commentator Eric Hoffer cleverly observed ‘when people are free to do as they please, they usually imitate each other’, we tend to follow the lead of others when deciding what to do with our time. So, even as we understand more and more about the health risks of overscheduling our lives, deprioritising sleep and leaving no time for play, we still do it because it’s what people do.
Sure, we know it’s unhealthy but ‘it’s ‘normal’ and we really want to be normal – even if that means being sick and stressed – because being normal means being accepted and being accepted means we get to stay part of the group which, as we’ve seen, reaps its own rewards.
But what if we, personally, could change the dynamic of the group? What if we used our power in our networks to spread feelings of happiness and contentment, seed the principles of mindfulness and create new behavioural norms around doing less, appreciating more and prioritising people over things?
Becoming patient zero in the spread of wellbeing
The research clearly shows that social connections provide emotional support and benefits to our health and wellbeing. Friends can directly and indirectly- up to 3 degrees – influence our thoughts, feelings and behaviours and, to a large extent determine how we live and how we experience our lives.
I think this insight has tremendous potential to help those of us committed to creating a wellbeing centred world. By showing the enormous impact we can individually and collectively have on our networks every time we publically communicate, share and invite friends to join us in creating the communities we want to live in, we can begin to appreciate how every little personal choice we make to live a different way, can change the thoughts, feelings and behaviours of others in the group.
This could include seeding the idea that being stressed out all the time isn’t actually OK by changing your own behaviour to be less busy and have more time for rest and play. If you do it and your friends see that the world doesn’t actually implode, this could be all the motivation they need to try it for themselves. And then, their friends see it and so on and so on until, before you know it, we’ve reversed the ‘busyness trend’ and replaced it with a set of behavioural norms which favour a slower, play-full, more mindful pace of life.
And of course, this principle extends to any change you want to see in your world. By consciously being your best self in your community, you can influence the changes you want to see – in health, wellbeing, ethical trade, social inclusion, the revaluing of community itself – and in so doing help create a wellbeing centred society full of happy, healthy people living rich, interesting lives full of purpose, meaning and connection.
Just think, relaxed could be the new normal in your network and it could all start with you!
Tricia Alach is an author, coach and wellbeing professional who specialises in helping busy people create more balance, joy and fulfilment in life! To learn more about what she offers visit www.flowmindandbody.com or connect via facebook or @triciaalach