The Connection between Social Support and Happiness

Human beings are social creatures. So, it makes sense that we need social support to be happy. People are also wired for emotions, and you experience those emotions within a social context. Most people are at their best when they’re engaging one another in the course of daily activities. If those activities are productive, constructive, involve mutual cooperation, and contribute to our ultimate survival, you feel joyful, happy, and satisfied.

Do you have meaningful social ties?

By meaningful social ties, this doesn’t mean the usual, “Hey, how are you? What’s happening?” kind of superficial connections that make up much, if not most, of your daily routine. This means relationships — ties — that give your life a sense of purpose and without which you’d be just another lost soul.

What makes a social tie meaningful is that it is unusually close, special, and has far greater impact on your life than the more commonplace, casual relationships. One way to decide if a relationship is meaningful is to ask yourself, “How would my life change if she wasn’t in it anymore?” If the answer is “more than I want to think about,” then you have a meaningful tie with her.

How big is your network?

A social network is the quantity of relationships that you can draw on for support. Social support has to do with the quality of that support.

How big is your network? How many people in your life can you really count on?

Think about the people who form the basis of your meaningful social support network. Who is your safety net in trying times, your source of motivation and inspiration, the people you rely on when faced with difficult decisions and the possibility of major life changes?

Thanks to the marvels of modern technology — e-mail, cellphones, — you’re probably more connected than ever in terms of the sheer quantity of communications you get per day. But the actual number of close connections may be steadily declining.

In 1985, one survey suggested that Americans had, on average, three close friends; by the year 2006, this number had dropped to only two. Even more striking was the fact that 25 percent of those surveyed could not point to a single person they were close to. The size of the support network has also decreased, thanks to the shrinking size of American families.

Who’s in your network?

As people have become more mobile, more educated, more affluent, and more independent, the composition of their support networks has changed. Many people under 40, for example, may identify college friends and work associates as their most supportive relationships in place of siblings or even parents.

Even fewer people would list neighbors as part of their networks. For more and more people, pets have become their significant others. And because more people postpone marriage well beyond their 20s or end up divorced, many of them can’t list a spouse as one of the people in their network.

Despite these changes, however, people can still have strong social networks and still get good support. As long as your network size is not “zero” and you have a meaningful relationship with those in your network, you’re in good shape.

Where’s your support?

Some of your closest relationships may be with people who are far away geographically. Some of your best friends, for example, may live in another state — the support they afford is long-distance and not immediately available. Others have many close friends right in your area. That makes a big difference — you don’t have to go far to enjoy an uplifting lunch with one of your friends.

Are you receptive to support?

Not everyone takes advantage of the support that’s available to them — so it does them no good. If a close friend leaves a voicemail message asking how you are, call her back. If your lawyer gives you some good advice, take it.

Don’t be like Chris, who for years suffered from chronic back pain. Chris was a police officer and he lost his job after he was injured. His buddies tried to keep in contact with him — calling him frequently and coming by his house to visit — but Chris made himself unavailable.

He wouldn’t return their calls and he refused to go to the door when they came knocking. Chris was an angry man. And yet, all the while, he complained, “No one cares about me. No one gives a damn about me now that I can’t work.” His friends didn’t abandon him — he abandoned them.

What kind of support are you getting?

Support, according to sociologist James House at the University of Michigan, involves “a flow of one or more of four types of support between people.” These four types of support are

  • Emotional support: You need to know that people are in your corner.

  • Informational support: You need information, guidance, and advice about what to do or how to handle situations. People who can give you this kind of support include lawyers, clergy members, physicians, mental health professionals, and accountants.

  • Tangible support: Tangible support includes things like a ride to the doctor’s office, a loan of money, help moving to another house, and watching your children so that you and your partner can enjoy a much needed night out on the town.

  • Appraisal support: You need someone to give you honest, frank, constructive feedback about yourself. This is not the type of support that typically comes from strangers or from acquaintances.

Take a minute and think about how connected you are to the world around you and how supportive those connections are. Then organize your thoughts like this:

Who Kind of Support Where How Accessible
Tom Emotional Long distance Somewhat
My accountant Informational Close by Very much
My spouse Emotional, tangible, appraisal Close by Very much
My brother Emotional Long distance Not very

When you’re finished with the exercise, ask yourself whether you have an adequate support system.

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