A matter of life and death

The adequacy of our social relationships impacts our risk of premature death as much as smoking and alcohol consumption and more than physical inactivity and obesity. Meaning that the function of adequate social relationships is to increase the relative length of life of both parties 

Social relationships are said to come in three forms. Our degree of integration in social networks, social interactions that are intended to be supportive and our perception of the social support available to us. This article will consider how we might, as individuals, improve the adequacy of these social relationships. It considers how our state of mind, feelings, and behaviours can impact on our social relationships. We begin with a consideration of our state of mind.

A state of mind - preparing to relate

In choosing where we put our attention we can impact our social relationships. For example, we influence and are influenced by other people, irrespective of inequalities. Whether we notice this is partially up to us. Once noticed we may also notice that anyone has the potential to do us harm or assist us. With this state of mind, a self-interested, motivation towards reciprocal mutually beneficial social relationships may become more attractive.

Our state of mind may also affect how likely we are to form relationships with others. We may have implicit or explicit biases towards, and/or against, certain groups of people. Keeping an open mind increases the possibility of social relationships with a wider variety of people. An open mind may also increase our perception of those who are available to support us socially.

Finally, our understanding of our social relationships can increase. One way to do this can be by organising our experiences. Observing, our own and other people’s, explicit and implicit boundaries. Perhaps recognising which of our, and others, experiences don't fit, the misshapen jigsaw pieces of life. These may be common or different across our social relationships. From this more informed position, we may be increasingly able to increase the adequacy of our social relationships. However, if we combine these insights with information from our, and other peoples, feelings we may be able to illuminate even more of what is going on in our social relationships.

Feelings - experiencing our impact on other people and other people on us

Feelings can help us focus on what is happening in the here and now. For example, accepting there may always be feelings of uncertainty in our relationships. As Montaigne (1595) said, "when I play with my cat, who knows if I am not a pastime to her more than she is to me". If we can contain this anxiety we may be able to keep playing, but not fiddling, with other people in social relationships.

Similarly, feelings of optimism may help us take the risks to start and develop our social relationships. Interestingly, dissatisfaction with how our life currently is can help too, in the form of motivation to change. As we become more confident we may feel able to experience and learn to form all our, and other people’s, feelings. In my experience, we can both love what we do for other people as well as what they do for us. What we do is the focus of the final part of this article on how we might impact on our social relationships.

Behaviours - practice, practice, and more practice

We can consciously practice social relationships. Some forms of therapy can help by practising, with your therapist, new ways of relating in a safer space. Group therapy too can increase our ability to impact on the adequacy of our social relationships in a safer space. In these ways we can acquire habits in one setting, that can be applied to another setting. This is important because obviously most of our social relationships though occur outside therapy.

Outside therapy, we can practice social relationships through a variety of conscious actions. Some actions I have had success with include finding something to give back, asking for help, offering help, receiving help, acknowledging other people's influence on you and you on them, communicating our vulnerability and recognising other people's. For therapists, the act of needing to be a healer communicates our vulnerability all too clearly. Finally, some aspects of social relationships may happen outside our consciousness.

We naturally mirror other people through unconscious neural mechanisms. In my experience, we can both notice this process and consciously encourage this to happen. Building rapport through shared actions, feelings and thoughts. This making, and sometimes breaking, of connection, can give relationships, like music, their own rhythm. My experience is that changing one thing at a time in our social relationships may help evolve the rhythm of our connections with others. Social relationships, like each piece of music and this article, have endings and they too can be usefully marked and learned from.

Conclusion - a shared experience

We have explored the significance of social relations for our health. Asking questions about what we as individuals we can do to increase their adequacy. Noting some possibilities in terms of our state of mind, feelings and behaviour. There seems to me, to be a sliding scale of possible social relationships, which is only partially determined by external context. As by way of example, in considering the experience of our relationships we may change their nature. I hope that in the reading of this article an idea of new possibilities, in social relationships, has occurred to you, just as they did in my mind when considering and writing it. Preparation and practice for the act of relating.

Reference: Holt-Lunstad, J., Smith, T. B., & Layton, J. B. (2010). Social relationships and mortality risk: a meta-analytic review. PLoS medicine, 7(7), e1000316.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Stirling, FK7
Written by Dr Andrew Perry, Clinical Psychologist
Stirling, FK7

Hello my name is Andrew Perry.  I believe we can help each other. I specialise in helping by example. I offer free initial sixty minute consultations, resources on my website, an online therapeutic group, outdoor face to face therapy and clinical supervision It's ordinary to have times when we...

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