In addition to the basic needs for food and sleep, humans have a basic need to form relationships and belong socially.
It’s no surprise that our close relationships with loved ones benefit our health and well-being, both physically and mentally. Numerous studies have shown that the effect of social support on good health and longevity appears to be on par with the effects of obesity or other lifestyle factors. One study even suggests having a network of meaningful relationships may be a stronger predictor of mortality than many lifestyle behaviors such as smoking and physical activity.
However, the underlying mechanisms of how well-functioning relationships promote (or hinder) resilience to stress and thriving — defined here as “coping successfully with life’s adversities and actively pursuing life opportunities for growth and development” — are still not completely understood.
In a 2014 paper published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Review, UC Santa Barbara psychology professor Nancy Collins takes a closer look at the effects of social support on thriving.
The interpretation of a strong relationship may differ but in general, the given support should be “sensitive and responsive to the recipient’s goals, needs, and preferences such that the recipient feels understood, validated, and cared for.”
Based on the attachment theory, which notes that the early emotional bonds we form affect the dynamics of future short-term and long-term interpersonal relationships, Collins proposes that close relationships with family, friends and romantic partners serve as a source of strength and as a relational catalyst.
In acting as a source of strength, relationships help us to not only cope with stress but to flourish after dealing with a stressor and to promote thriving through adversity.
“A useful metaphor is that houses destroyed by storms are frequently rebuilt, not into the same houses that existed before, but into homes that are better able to withstand similar storms in the future,” the study states.
“So too are people able to emerge from adverse life circumstances stronger and better off than they were before with the support of significant others who fortify and assist them in the rebuilding. In this sense, relationships can provide a source of strength, in addition to a refuge, in adverse circumstances.”
When facing adversities, we turn to our supportive relationships as a “safe haven” — a comfortable environment allowing for emotional or physical relief through the expression of empathy, reassurance and acceptance. Such relationships also provide fortification to nurture strengths and talents, and assist in emotional reconstruction through providing motivation and encouraging perseverance. Finally, they help to redefine the adversity as a mechanism for positive change.
Collins’s paper highlights that even in the absence of adversity, our social bonds serve as relational catalysts to support our ability to thrive.
Meaningful relationships “nurture a desire to create and/or seize life opportunities for growth,” and in doing so, promote development and exploration. This comes through the shared development of plans, strategies and skills for approaching opportunities and through being encouraging and non-intrusive, yet available, during life exploration. It’s when loved ones celebrate our accomplishments and successes, respond sensitively to setbacks and help make adjustments along the way.
According to the paper, “supportive relationships can help people thrive by promoting engagement in opportunities that enable them to enhance their positive well-being by broadening and building resources and finding purpose and meaning in life.”
Receiving support yields immediate benefits, Collins reports. In one experiment in which participants faced a stressful speech task, their levels of cortisol (commonly known as the stress hormone) were lower when they received emotional support from their romantic partners.
“Recent experimental research also shows that the actual or symbolic presence of attachment figures can attenuate neural activation in brain regions associated with threat and emotion regulation and reduce perceptions of pain,” the study states.
In fact, neuroscience reveals that our brains are inherently social. Matthew Lieberman, a psychology professor at UC Los Angeles, found that the default mode of the brain (i.e. the resting brain function when we aren’t performing an active task) appears practically identical to the brain during social cognition in “making sense of other people and ourselves.”
In his 2013 book Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect, Lieberman asserts that this predisposition toward the default network “may nudge our attention toward the social world … to think about other people’s minds — their thoughts, feelings, and goals.”
“It suggests that evolution, figuratively speaking, made a big bet on the importance of developing and using our social intelligence for the overall success of our species by focusing the brain’s free time on it,” he continues.
Here in Isla Vista and the UCSB community, opportunities to forge these strong social connections are abundant. If you feel like you may lack these sorts of connections, just know that “we Gaucho back.”
Jacqueline serves as the Science and Tech Editor. She enjoys watching movies and learning about science and tech.