Strength in Numbers
Have you ever found yourself driving across a bridge on the coast, hundreds of feet above the ocean? Or have you navigated through a dark forest only to find yourself suspended far above a gaping valley or ravine? Have you ever wondered what makes such a thing possible? The answer may surprise you: even the most commonplace bridge is made up of thousands and thousands of individual cables braided together. Each cable on its own has a limited capacity to bear a load, but when woven together with other cables, can support an astounding weight. The result is a resilient system whose strength relies on the interconnectedness of its component parts.
Human beings are not so different--our social systems find their strength in the merits and shared interests of the individuals who make it up. Each person finds their strength, too, when connected to this greater whole. Studies have recently shown that fostering meaningful relationships with others, as well as with ourselves, greatly improves our physical health, our quality of life, and our sense of fulfillment and well-being.
The Science Behind Social Support
Last week we discussed the importance of self-care and self-compassion. We saw how these skills strengthen our overall health, wellbeing and resilience. Not surprisingly, we saw, too, how these skills (and we, the human beings who practice them) are deeply connected to communities, other human beings just like us.
We know from experience how exciting, inspiring and strengthening it is to be part of something bigger, to connect with others who share our interests and goals. But being part of a cohesive social system doesn’t just make us feel happy and supported--we are actually building measurable support structures in our bodies and brains. Studies have shown that shared beliefs, interests and goals lead to a higher likelihood of resilience among those within a particular system or group. These shared ideals have positive implications for mental health and emotional resilience as well as physical health and hardiness. Doctor Stewart Wolf, among many others, have found that within a community, those who work together rather than against one another boast lower mortality rates, higher executive function and a greater likelihood of overall quality of life. Remarkably, when social systems adopt high levels of competition and abandon this sense of teamwork and shared ideals (otherwise known as cohesion), resistance towards diseases such as heart disease and cancer decreases, as does the tendency towards accompanying depression.
We have discussed the importance of discovering and maintaining our own self-care routines, but while it’s important to care for ourselves, it’s also highly important to care for and engage meaningfully with others. This act of reaching out not only benefits those whom we help, improving their mental and emotional wellbeing, but also brings a sense of calm, meaning and joy to our own lives. Further, studies have shown great benefits to physical wellbeing and reduced mortality rates in those who actively provide support to others. We are reminded that what we value most is this ability to connect with others, beyond the business of each day, and even beyond our aspirations for our own lives. Human beings are naturally social creatures, and we, just like other animals, come alive when we are together.
Rewiring the Brain through Our Relationships
Further, studies have shown just how deeply our relationships affect our wellbeing from a neurological perspective. Interpersonal Neurobiology (IPNB), developed by Dan Siegel, draws on the concept of the brain’s immense ability for growth and change (neuroplasticity), and focuses particularly on the effects of our relationships with others. Siegel shows that while our brains and our behaviors are inherently alterable, this is especially the case in terms of our relationships--not only those from our past, but even those which we are engaging in today. IPNB shows that we can learn how to develop healthy relationships, and in so doing, alter neural pathways which previously led us to negative or unwanted outcomes. When we invest time, care and intention into our relationships we challenge old habits and patterns (old pathways) and heal not only ourselves but others as well.
Part of the hard work is identifying our own habits, particularly in our close relationships as well as in our work relationships. We must ask ourselves if we are truly surrounded by those whom we care for and who care for us, as well as those who share common goals and interests. Though it might seem unimportant, we now see how crucial our communities are, and just how interrelated our physical and mental well-being is with our social systems. Neuroscience shows us, too, that we have the power to become the kinds of people we want to be--and our interactions with others are instrumental in achieving this goal. If you feel stuck or don’t quite know where to start, you can begin by asking yourself a few key questions. You might be surprised at the answers you come up with and where those answers may lead!
Questions to Ask Yourself
How do I feel about my family?
How do I feel about my circle of friends?
How do I feel about my work environment?
How do I feel about asking for help?
The Groundwork for Strong Social Systems
How do I empathize with others and how do I hope to be met empathetically?
How do I believe I am perceived and how do I often perceive others?
How likely am I to listen to the advice and concerns of others over my own?
How open am I to positive feedback? To negative feedback?
Do I prioritize time spent connecting with others? If not, why not? And how can I improve?