The Importance Of Clear And Meaningful Relationships
Human relationships are at the core of our wellbeing and success. As social animals, we have a “need to belong.” Supportive relationships help people thrive by enabling them to embrace and pursue opportunities that enhance positive wellbeing, broaden and build resources, and foster a sense of purpose and meaning in life. Our brain depends on mutually stimulating and beneficial interactions with others for its survival, and without it, neurons die! Think of interaction as an exercise for the brain. The deeper the engagement, the greater the relationship affects our brain and wellbeing and activates the genes controlling our immune systems and increases our ability to deal with stress.
Oxytocin – the bonding hormone – affects the “social brain” and dampens stress. The amount of oxytocin released during dyadic interactions is directly related to the reciprocity of the pair. One study found that people with good social relationships have a 50% lower mortality rate than those with poor social interactions. Meaningful relationships provide the opportunity for three key benefits: exchange of support, social engagement and sense of worth—all central pillars for a foundation of healthy ageing.
As the American Psychological Association wrote in its resilience report: “Many studies show that the primary factor in resilience is having caring and supportive relationships within and outside the family. Relationships that create love and trust provide role models, and offer encouragement and reassurance, help bolster a person’s resilience.”
The opposite is also true. In today’s world, people feel less connected to their community which can have devastating effects on our happiness, wellbeing, and ability to build a peaceful and cooperative society. Poor relationships can also create pain. Therefore good relationships are critical, and building and maintaining them takes intentional effort. What are good relationships, though? Harvard Professor Robert Waldinger explains: “It’s not just the number of friends you have, and it’s not whether or not you’re in a committed relationship. It’s the quality of your close relationships that matters.” And deep relationships are possible, even in virtual reality.
How do you build good and close relationships? Relationships are complex. Professor Gervase Bushe reminds us that we are sense-making beings and make up stories about others to fill the gaps of what we know about their experience. We see what we believe. If we do not understand our assumptions, biases, and stories and do not check out others’ stories, interpersonal mush and misunderstanding occur. Under conditions of interpersonal mush, we cannot learn from each other. Interpersonal mush drives out our ability to see the basic humanity in one another and is replaced by a natural impulse to be cautious in the face of uncertainty.
You need to be willing to clear out the mush and be ready to have a greater understanding of our own and others’ experiences. An excellent way to do this is to think through what you observe, think, feel and want and share that with others, whilst being curious about what they observe, think, feel and want without judgement. You also need to be able to care whilst maintaining healthy boundaries in your relationships. We cannot be fused with others and their needs. Often we get caught in drama triangles in our relationships where we rescue others or paint ourselves as a victim, not taking responsibility for our own and letting others take responsibility for their experiences and choices.
So build those strong relationships and find your tribe/s. When I say “tribe,” I’m merely referring to a close-knit group of people that accept one another, support each other, and have each other’s backs when we are in times of need or weakness. If you do not have a “tribe” of your own or you are caught in an unhealthy tribe, take the time to seek one out or create one. Doing so requires effort and initiative, but the return on investment will be worth it as it can give a significant boost to your quality of life and your emotional wellbeing.
Here are a few ideas to get you started:
Get back in touch with friends and family.
Connect with people with common interests.
Say “yes” to invitations.
Invest in good people when you find them.
Let go of negative and toxic people.
Finally, Anne Davin reminds us that tribes are like gardens. They require care and feeding, and they are subject to constant change. Some people move to another city, some become involved in a romantic relationship and switch tribes, people pass away with age. New members of the tribe will be born or join the community from elsewhere. Modern-day tribes must be fluid, flexible, and have open boundaries. What remains constant is the “village heart” that tethers everyone together with a feeling of belonging that transcends time and change.