A lot has been written about the importance of social connection as a key factor, if not the key factor, to a healthy and happy life. I myself have delved deep into the topic, exploring the value of close social relationships.
Few people, however, have written as eloquently about the “why” and “how” of social connection as Shawn Achor in his latest book, Big Potential. Part of what I appreciate so much about Achor is his willingness to compare his latest thinking – focused on the importance of group dynamics to drive well-being and progress – to his earlier work which had more of an emphasis on the individual pursuit of happiness (unfortunately, the default for most of Positive Psychology).
I am a strong believer in the power of social connection to drive nearly every important outcome related to well-being and progress. As Anchor points out, “almost every attribute of your potential – from intelligence to creativity to leadership to personally and engagement – is interconnected with others” (p. 23).
This blog post will briefly explore the power of social connection through the lens of barriers (i.e. what gets in the way of experiencing the power of connection) and catalysts (i.e. actual things we can do to experience the power of connection more), leveraging quotes from Achor’s Big Potential.
Barriers (i.e. what gets in the way of experiencing the power of connection)
Evolutionarily, our human nature is to work together through cooperation, altruism, and support. At a very young age, we are pre-wired to interact with others in positive ways, with a tendency to empathize with others, seek fairness, and care about each other’s well-being.
Unfortunately, this doesn’t always last. And arguably, the biggest barrier to experiencing positive social connection is the expectations (and related processes, mindsets, and reward systems) that we ourselves set on each other, especially younger generations:
- “Our society has become overly focused on the “power of alone” versus “the power of one made stronger by others… when we adopt this script in our companies and schools, focusing only on individual achievement and eliminating “others” from the equation, our true power remains hidden” (p. 19).
- “We spend the first twenty-two years of our life being judged and praised for our individual attributes and what we can achieve alone, when, for the rest of our life, our success is almost entirely interconnected with that of others” (p. 21).
- “….we need to break the vicious cycle of a me, me, me mindset that we see infecting our society. We need to stop asking “how many points did you score?” and start asking “how did you help your team to win?” We need to change our reward structures at work, home, and school” (p. 67).
While shifting our focus from individuals to social group dynamics is critical, doing it effectively requires an intentional approach geared towards the positive. For many reasons (which we can explore later), people often find themselves spending time with others that bring them down. A meaningful barrier to enhanced well-being through social connection is the type of connections we choose to surround ourselves with:
- “The height of your potential is predicted by the people who surround you. So the key to creating a super bounce for your potential is to surround yourself with people who will lift you up rather than drag you down” (p. 63).
- “The people around us matter – a lot. And while we cant choose our family and we don’t get to pick all the people we work with, we can strategically choose to surround ourselves with people who will give us a super bounce rather than a knock down” (p. 68).
- “Researchers … have found that simply observing someone who is stressed – especially a co-worker or family member – can have an immediate effect upon our own nervous systems, raising our levels of the stress hormone cortisol by as much as 26%” (p. 149).
It is critical to our happiness and health that we surround ourselves with people that help us thrive and try to minimize interactions with people that negatively influence our well-being.
Catalysts (i.e. actual things we can do to experience the power of connection more).
While the process of creating strong social connections or “making new friends” is inherently non-linear and time-intensive, there are some practical, evidence-based pathways that can be followed.
I believe the most important starting place is to accept the notion that we have the power to choose happiness and one of the best ways to do that is through positive social connections: “Happiness is a choice, it is not just an individual choice; it is an interconnected one” (p. 23).
One of the most practical ways to improve well-being through social connection is, somewhat ironically, by looking for ways to make other people happier and more successful:
- “…when you work to help make others more successful, you in turn take the invisible cap off your own success” (p. 38).
- “We learn better when we teach others rather than study simply for the sake of individual knowledge. This is called the “protege effect.” And it’s a perfect example of how working to make others better actually increases your individual potential” (p. 44).
- “Simply celebrating a person or a team for their companionship, their strengths, their everyday contributions – no matter how small or seemingly insignificant – reinforces a more empowered self-image that helps them see a vivid image of themselves as someone who is worthy of happiness and success” (p. 203).
In addition to any individual practices you may embark on in your well-being journey (e.g. journaling, gratitude exercises, meditation, etc.), I recommend focusing on pursuing opportunities to spend time with others. The simple act of being with other positive-oriented people can have a drastic influence on how you see the world:
- “If you are looking at a hill and judging how steep it is, the mere presence of social support around you transforms your perception. In fact, if you look at a hill while standing next to someone you consider to be a friend, the hill looks 10 to 20 percent less steep than if you were facing that hill alone” (p. 31).
- “…people work faster, are more creative, and more collaborative when they are surrounded by others (p. 72).
- “[Google] found that if the individuals on the team had (1) high ‘social sensitivity’ – that is, a strong awareness of the importance of social connections – and (2) if the team had cultivated an environment in which each person spoke just about equally and everyone felt safe sharing their ideas, the team hit their highest levels of performance over and over” (p. 37)
There is true power to environments that enable and facilitate meaningful social connection. Sometimes we get lucky and stumble into these environments, but other times – especially in today’s world – these environments require intentional action to find and/or create. That’s why it’s more important than ever to act in ways that enable meeting and engaging with others (e.g. pursuing a hobby, joining a fitness class, or working from a cafe), in addition to looking for opportunities to deepen existing connections (e.g. phone calls, showing support for others in hard times, or setting up regular coffee walks).
Like most meaningful things in life, the ability to experience more positive social connection is an ongoing journey. That being said, it is a worthy one. The human condition is hard enough to feel like you have to face life’s challenges alone or be surrounded by people who bring you down:
- “If the past decade of research has taught me anything, it’s that change is not a one-time event. You can’t shower once and hope to remain clean next year. You can’t exercise today hoping to never need to exercise again” (p. 212).
- “Every individual, every culture, every company, every tribe needs not a one-time solution but a continual and constant championing of the positive. Stress and challenge are omnipresent in life; thus positive mindset, connection, and hope need to be equally ubiquitous (p. 213).
- “Which is why change – like success, like potential, and like happiness – can’t be pursued alone. Because true change, big or small, requires the support of champions who ‘get it.’” (p 213).
And don’t forget, the simple act of becoming happier yourself can be a true gift to the world: “…if you become happier, any friend within one-mile radius would be 63% more likely to also become happier” (p. 40). So none of this is selfish, it’s simply a way to revert back to our natural human inclination of forming and living within meaningful, positive social connections.