The importance of social contact to our well-being is well established. Without it, we can suffer all kinds of physical and psychological problems, such that being without social connections is as harmful to our health as smoking.
Likewise, soothing contact with others yields clear physiological signs of relief from stress, in animals and humans alike. It’s easy to jump to the conclusion that you should go out and collect as many friends or acquaintances as possible. The more, the better, right?
It’s true that you can’t have too much social support, but a distinction needs to be made between basic social contact needs and the types of social support that can help you thrive. This isn’t a black-and-white distinction, but rather a spectrum with social isolation (the chronic absence of others in your life) on one end and the deepest, most supportive relationships (with respect to both practical and psychoemotional matters) on the other.
You don’t actually need a ton of social contact to avoid the serious physical and psychological effects of isolation. Studies show that having as few as four, not necessarily close, others in your life will suffice. With respect to the quantity of human social connection, there is a law of diminishing returns. That is, once your basic needs are met, just adding more connections doesn’t significantly move the needle on your baseline level of well-being.
What does matter is the quality of the connections you do have. A handful of good ones that fill your deepest social needs are all you really need to thrive from a social health standpoint, and the rest are backups (though you may not want to tell them that).
So, what are those needs? Here, some basics of attachment theory are helpful. In an earlier article, I discussed the work of Harry Harlow, whose experiments in the 1960s and 1970s with isolated baby monkeys and fake monkey mothers helped to build what was then our emerging understanding of how the type of nurturing we receive can affect our happiness.
One of Harlow’s experiments involved deliberately frightening baby monkeys, which he had isolated from other monkeys since birth, with a flailing, noisy robot, in the presence of a wire-frame mother with food, and a cloth-covered mother without it. The result? Even those babies that had been raised since birth in a cage with a food-bearing wire mother instinctively leapt for the “cloth mother.”
What happened next was just as remarkable: they became calm, and were very quickly emboldened to threaten the scary robot. (If you care to watch Harlow demonstrate some of his experiments, I’ve included a video here, but be warned: this is not uplifting footage if you like baby monkeys.)
Later researchers, like John Bowlby, Mary Ainsworth, and Mary Main saw similar responses in children who had experienced varying degrees of nurturing from their mothers: children exhibited a variety of predictable responses when exposed to a strange new situation.
The best-attended-to monkeys and humans shared a similar response: returning to a safe base of support (the mother) to soothe themselves during an anxiety-provoking situation, from which they drew the necessary self-confidence to explore the world again. This mechanism is similar in some ways to the way phobias are treated with exposure therapy.
For instance, someone with arachnophobia might first be exposed to a picture of a spider, and allowed to experience that small amount of anxiety in the safe, supportive presence of their therapist. In a subsequent session, the therapist might display a spider in a plastic enclosure across the room, and ultimately might place a spider on the person's hand. With the support of a caring other, the anxious person is gradually able to explore and tolerate ever more anxiety on their own.
What research shows is that the best types of relationships are with people who will support you in exploring your interests and facing your fears, so that you can feel empowered to expand your comfort zone a bit at a time, with the knowledge that you have a safe harbor to return to, with them.
They are there to hear you when you face a crisis. But they are not smothering or controlling, nor do they leave you feeling dependent on them for direction. Rather, they help you feel able to make your own decisions, pursue your own goals, and achieve them. They might also connect you with other people or practical resources that support your efforts.
Don't be too picky
These types of supportive relationships can be had with family members, romantic partners, mentors, or friends (from a scientific standpoint, they are essentially interchangeable) and are the ones most conducive to your achieving your full potential.
However, even a little suboptimal support is much better for you than having none at all. For some people, just attending church, a 12-step meeting, a club, or some other venue where others with shared interests or perspectives congregate can meet their basic social needs and provide the foundation for more satisfying support at the same time.
Learning from the lack of support
If you don’t have supportive relationships with people in your life right now, then you can seek to cultivate them actively . . . and their absence is also worthy of closer consideration. Your own habitual beliefs and behavioral patterns may be keeping you from what you really want, perhaps.
Also, sometimes the circumstances of your life can put you on a path to a destination you never really planned to visit in the first place. You may have been moved along by practical necessity, momentum, or the desire for the company of others, but find that the support being offered by those around you, if any, is not the kind that you need. The others in your life may not be supportive people, or they may not have goals and values that are aligned enough with yours for them to be able to support you, or even understand you.
Not having a sense of belonging can make it very difficult to achieve a deep sense of well-being. While you may be safer from lions as the only zebra in a herd of antelope, you will never achieve your optimal level of fulfillment: the feeling of wholeness that comes from relating with others like you.
Since the relationship between your satisfaction with your life and social support can be bidirectional, you may need to figure out what kind of life would be the most rewarding for you first, and craft your social environment accordingly.