The idea that humans are social beings may be hackneyed, but it still has validity. We rely on social systems, either externally organized or personally designed, to live a good life which by one definition means to experience health, wealth, security, socialization, personal growth and service.
From childhood to adulthood, we navigate various phases of our existence. We grow up within a family unit; we go away to university and live on campus with other students; we get jobs and interact with co-workers and we find love and start families of our own—although not necessarily in that order. All the while, we are mostly surrounded by people and have many opportunities for social connections, some of them very deep.
Then, we get older and life changes. For many of us, it’s a time to enjoy a second youth, explore the world or dote on our expanding families. For others, it’s a juncture that offers a different reality orchestrated by a string of unfortunate circumstances such as declining health, scarce financial resources and the loss of a loving partner.
Regardless of our situation, life can take twists and turns where we suddenly find ourselves socially disconnected and isolated. While we may grow used to living alone and enjoy our own company, there are many reasons to create and maintain meaningful connections.
Meaningful connections may be defined differently by different people depending on temperament and personal needs. However, meaningful connections generally entail supportive, positive, respectful, honest, interdependent and compassionate relationships with other people. These connections are healthy, reciprocal and rewarding. They contribute to our holistic well-being and sense of worth, positively impacting all aspects of our existence in a variety of contexts.
On the other hand, meaningful connections should not induce guilt, indebtedness, loss of control, feelings of inadequacy, dependence or lack of autonomy as these sentiments, if sustained, are detrimental to a good life. In this case, it would be beneficial to redirect these types of relationships in the way of good communications or to even abandon them in the face of continued disharmony.
The extent of social connection we need depends on each individual. Some people need a lot of social interaction, while others are happy to stay home alone and read a book. The key is to ensure that we do not become isolated because social isolation can contribute to deteriorating physical and mental health and open the door for abuse.
It is well documented that the more isolated we are, the more susceptible we are to become the target of abuse and the more abuse we sustain the more isolated we become. This may seem like an oxymoron as for abuse to prevail, an isolated person needs to enter into a relationship with the abuser. But for abusive personalities such as fraudsters, isolation is the ultimate condition to achieve their desired outcome and they will find opportunities to connect with the isolated person. By staying connected to our social networks, we can create circumstances where we can confide in and tell our story to people we trust. In sharing this way, we can get help for ourselves as well as helping others.
Meaningful connections can be achieved through many types of linkages including family ties, close friendships, spiritual affiliations and professional supports. Given that people in our lives tend to come and go and that we cannot realistically expect one person to fulfill all of our human needs, it’s important to keep our social networks emergent and thriving by continually reaching out to existing relationships and creating new ones.
We don’t have to be social butterflies to develop meaningful connections. All we have to do is to stay connected by going for a walk, saying hi to people, visiting the library, taking classes, volunteering or going for coffee. Another way to stay connected is to keep track of what’s going on in the community by checking out the announcements in the newspaper and making a point to attend some of the events. For people with mobility issues, it may be more difficult, but they could connect by telephone, converse by email, safely participate in social media, invite friends and family over for a visit or try to get out whenever possible.
Breaking isolation and developing meaningful relationships contribute to improved quality of life through better health, disease prevention and longer life expectancy. It takes work, but it is well worth it. So, go out there and smile at someone.
By Louise Tremblay
Regional Mentor – BC Association of Community Response Networks
Director of Development – The Semiahmoo Foundation