How Would You Rate Your Social Connections?

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

social connections

If you’ve been following me for long, you know that I write about the ABCs of happiness—appreciating, becoming and connecting. From my study of the topic of happiness for many years now, I’ve reduced happiness to these three themes. Beginning today, I want to share some thoughts and also research about the third part of the ABCs-connecting as well as invite you to consider and rate your social connections.

Science teaches that, hands down, the happiest people have the best social relationships. The happier a person, the more likely they are to have a large circle of friends, good work relationships, and a satisfying family life. And the good news is that the more you develop positive connections the better adjusted and happier you’ll become.

Studies of Orphaned Children

If you think about it, our need for human connection is one of our deepest human needs. Back in the 1940s and ’50s Dr. René Spitz (and others) performed a number of experiments with orphaned children. In one study, orphaned infants were divided into two groups. One group received little interaction or touch. A nurse would change their diapers and feed them, or care for their physical needs, but otherwise these infants were left on their own. A second group of orphaned infants were cared for by mothers who were in prison. These mothers were allowed to touch, hold, and cuddle their infants and young children a number of times during the day.

Although we know too much about infant development to allow this study today, these researchers followed both groups into their adulthood and found that those who received no touch and affection became severely mentally and emotionally handicapped. In fact, they suffered from these symptoms for the rest of their lives. On the other hand, those infants who received touch and physical affection grew up to be normal adults, even though raised by mothers in prison.

Even Adults Crave Emotional Connection

Social contact, including touch, is vital for infants to thrive. And although our ability to hide our deepest needs increases as we become older, we still have such needs. Most of us, whether introvert or extravert, crave emotional connection. I would say that this is a theme underneath so much of our day-to- day striving, this desire for attention, acceptance, respect, and approval. Certainly, it’s not our only motive. But it is a primary motive that drives our behavior.

Harvard Men Study

One of the most important studies on the topic of well-being and our social relationships is known as the Harvard Men Study. This long-term study has tracked the 268 men who entered Harvard University in 1938 up to the present day. Most, maybe all, of these men have died off by now. Even the original researchers have retired or passed on but the study has continued.

However, through more than 80 years, the researchers gathered a wealth of data on the circumstances and personal characteristics that distinguish those men living the happiest, fullest lives from those who are least happy. The researchers report that close relationships, more than money or fame, are what have kept these men going. Their social ties protected them from life’s hardships, helped to delay mental and physical decline, and were better predictors of long and happy lives than social class, IQ, or even genetics.

They found that satisfaction with their relationships was a better predictor of physical health at age 50 than their levels of cholesterol. Those who were most satisfied with their relationships were the healthiest at age 80. George Vaillant, director of the study from 1972 to 2004 stated, “When the study began, nobody cared about empathy or attachment. But the key to healthy aging is relationships, relationships, relationships.” In fact, he summarized the study’s findings in one word: “Love. We have 80 years of evidence that our relationships matter more than anything else in the world.”

Cross-Culture Research

Another set of researchers, Ed Diener and his son, Robert Biswas-Diener, wrote a book entitled “Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth.” It is based on a massive cross-cultural research project to understand happiness. They found that the happiest countries in the world, like Denmark and Sweden, are those with the strongest social connections. The least happy are those who lack good social support networks.

The Deiners state, “Like food and air, we need social relationships to thrive.” Their research shows that the happiest 10% of people in any society are those who have the strongest social relationships. The correlation was incredibly high, almost unheard of in the sciences—.70.

The Consequences of Isolation

And yet, unfortunately, social scientists tell us that we are becoming more isolated and lonelier as a society. Of course, we don’t need scientists to tell us this. We see it all around us. As a society, we are dropping out of community involvement and turning inward. In the 1940s and 50s when Americans were asked how many close personal friends they had, the average reported was three. Today the average is none.

Obviously, social media and technology are not helping this. They are resulting in people spending less time together and more time in front of a screen—working, watching movies, surfing the internet, playing video games, or comparing their lives to others on social media and coming up short.

And the consequences of our growing social isolation are alarming. A number of researchers like John Cacioppo, Lisa Berkman, and Sheldon Cohen have studied loneliness for a couple of decades. Independently, they have concluded that feeling lonely causes cortisol, our stress hormone, to soar and that people who are isolated are three times more likely to get a common cold and two to three times more likely to die from any disease—cancer, heart disease, diabetes, respiratory problems, etc. According to them, loneliness is deadly and human connections are life-saving.

The sad news is that as much as we know about the connection between well-being and social relationships, alienation, anxiety, and depression are soaring in our society today, particularly among young people. We are forgetting how to build friendships and social relationships. Yet remember that we humans are social creatures. We need connection.  The more the better.

Rate Your Social Connections

In the meantime, let me invite you to take a short (far from comprehensive) quiz to gage the quality of your social relationships:

  1. How recently have you reached out to a friend (even an old friend) just to connect and talk about how things are going for the two of you?
  2. How common is it for you to strike up a conversation with a grocery clerk or people in line at a store?
  3. How often do you gather with friends and/or family for primarily social reasons?
  4. Who would you talk to if you were feeling lonely?
  5. How many personal friends would you say you have?
  6. Do you belong to a social group or community in which you find meaning and purpose?
  7. Who would you talk to in your family if you needed support or help?
  8. Who do you turn to for fun and recreation?
  9. When was the last time you gave service to someone in need?
  10. With whom can you “let your hair down” and say anything you want?
  11. How satisfied are you, overall, with your family relationships? Friendships?

So think about your life. How might you improve your happiness and well-being by strengthening your social connections? Think of this as a long game. It’s not something you can do overnight. What one step might you take to engage with others in a socially meaningful way?

And watch for upcoming posts in which I talk more about how to build good relationships.


About Roger K. Allen
Roger K. Allen, Ph.D. is an expert in personal transformation and family development. His tools and methods have helped tens of thousands of people live happier and more effective lives. To learn more, visit www.rogerkallen.com>.

2 responses to “How Would You Rate Your Social Connections?”

  1. Kat says:

    this is a very important topic. I am completely isolated due to multiple physical problems. Dropped out of society before COVID and have suffered from no connections. It is awful. Yet, i remain physically challenged in so many ways that the picture will not change at this point. the world is experiencing what I have experienced since 2017. Not sure how to change it.

    • Thanks for your comment, Kat. Sorry to hear that you have been so isolated. It sounds like you’ll never get back to pre-2017, however, are there any small actions you can take to connect up with others, even if not face-to-face?

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