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Who needs friends? How to make the most of your social support network

The importance of social support

We all have a need for affiliation, that is, a need to have positive relationships and interact with others. The research on social relationships goes way back and over 60 years ago researchers found that when participants were offered $50 to remain completely alone in a room with no windows, books, telephone, television or radio and no contact whatsoever with another person, it was found that eight days was the longest any one person could remain in such a state. One participant left after only 20 minutes. Ethically, it would be difficult to replicate this research now but wouldn’t it be interesting to do so now that our culture has changed and evolved? How long would you last? We now have the internet that we rely on so much and even during the current pandemic we can still interact with others. Continuing to make contact with others at any time is crucial, even if we like our own company.

Social support is about having a network of family and friends who you can share with and who will support you in different ways. It’s the quality of relationships, not the quantity, that is important. The benefits of maintaining social support with others are wide-ranging. Michael Argyle was one of the first social psychologists to focus on these benefits and from the 1960s onwards published extensively on the value of social relationships; he also wrote a book in 1987 about the psychology of happiness and so the recent trends in these areas are not new. Argyle’s research found that people with good, longer-term social relationships suffered fewer mental health issues than those without and many other studies have found links between high stress, low social support and mental ill health.

In a nutshell, according to research, the benefits of good social relationships that are supportive include:

  • Improving our psychological wellbeing and sense of happiness

  • Giving support to others and receiving it in return can motivate us, for example, if we are working towards a challenging physical goal such as giving up smoking or losing weight

  • Relationships can improve our mental health because we are being kind to others and experiencing gratitude for others’ help

The following activity can help you to maintain existing relationships and build new ones if necessary, to fill any gaps you identify. Remember that it’s still possible to build new relationships online and having taught people internationally on a purely virtual basis for the last seven years, I can attest to this.

Making the most of your support network: an exercise

As stated above, developing and maintaining supportive relationships contributes significantly to our health, wellbeing and length of life. This activity helps you to think about who is involved in your support network and whether you would like to make any changes to this.

Draw out a mind map, similar to the one below and write in the names or initials of people you know who provide you with the different kinds of support written in the bubbles. You can add more kinds of support if you want to. If you are working at the moment you might want to consider people at work as well as friends and family in your personal life. After you’ve done this, consider the questions below the mind map and think about any actions you want to take to maintain or build on your social support network.

  • Does anything surprise you when you look at the extent of your support network?

  • Are there any gaps?

  • Do you rely on only one or two people for your support?

  • Does this matter?

  • Who haven’t you been in contact with for a while?

  • Who will you contact in the next few hours or days after a result of doing this exercise? What kind of support do you want and need right now?

  • Would you like to extend your network and make new friends or network with more colleagues at work? How can you go about doing this? (e.g., joining a new online or face to face group of some sort; reaching out to a colleague you've emailed a few times and suggesting meeting for a coffee, virtually or face to face).

Some people feel it’s important to keep their problems to themselves and manage on their own, but most people like to be asked for help when it is really needed. So why not reach out to someone if you need to?

Note — the research and knowledge presented above is adapted from the following book chapters:

Cortvriend, P & Teahan, R., Social Relationships, Unit 5, in Taylor I. (1999) Active Psychology. London: Routledge

Lyubomirsky, S. (2007) The how of happiness: a practical guide to getting the life you want. London: Piatkus

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