Tuesday 27 June 2017

#MindYourself: Day four of Dr Paul D'Alton's guide to living a happier life

In day four of his guide to living a happier life, psychologist Dr Paul D'Alton reminds us that feeling connected is the bedrock of well-being

Dr Paul D'Alton
Dr Paul D'Alton

Sometimes psychologists like me tell people what they already know - like the fact that our relationships matter; that they probably matter more than anything else in our lives. From the very moment we come into this world until the very moment we die, we are dependent on the people in our lives. Our connection with people around us, like our friends and family, people in our neighbourhood and at work serves as the bedrock of happiness and well-being. Our lives depend on our relationships.

What psychologists have done is provide the hard scientific evidence to prove how important it is to stay connected to the people in our lives. There is now evidence that our lives actually depend on our social connections.

Staying connected with the people in our lives has consistently been found to be one of the most important factors in living a happier life. Staying connected also has a significant impact on our physical health. People with poor social support are at an increased risk of heart disease and many other serious illnesses compared to those with good social support. Several large studies from across the world have indicated that our social support plays a key role in how well and how long we live.

Recent research conducted closer to home by Headstrong and my colleagues from the School of Psychology in UCD highlighted the importance of relationships, particularly during adolescence. Adolescents who did not have a supportive adult in their lives were most likely to report moderate to severe levels of stress, anxiety and depression. The research found that having a relationship with one good adult acted as a real protective factor for adolescents going through tough times. The researchers referred to this as the One Good Adult effect.

I think the need for one good adult, that person we feel we can trust and be honest with, probably extends well beyond our adolescence. Staying connected to even a couple of people has over and over again been shown to make us more resilient to the assaults that life will inevitably throw at us. Our social connections give us the capacity to bounce back psychologically from the losses such as bereavement and divorce that are part of what it is to be human. We rarely make it through the loss of a loved one or the loss of something else important in our lives without at least one good adult to trust, one good adult who we know won't run away when we tell them how we really feel. These are the conversations that keep us going. These are the conversations that keep us alive.

Connecting with others provides us with a sense of belonging, an increased sense of self-worth and feelings of security. Although often underestimated, it is one of the most powerful ways to look after ourselves. But it is a real challenge to keep connected in a busy world. It can be a real challenge to actually connect beyond the virtual world of 500 Facebook friends. Social connections work best when they happen in person or at least through a real-time conversation. The sense of belonging, security, and self-worth that happen in these direct interactions is often difficult to replace in a virtual world.

Staying connected takes work. It takes commitment and action. One way is to take a sheet of paper and jot down a list of the important people in your life. From that list circle a couple of people you would contact when the chips are down. These are probably your one good adult equivalent. Now make a commitment to contact them by Friday of this week and arrange to meet them. If you feel you are struggling to build connections, one really good way is to volunteer. Often by volunteering we get a fantastic opportunity to meet people and establish connections with like-minded people. You can contact Volunteer Ireland at volunteer.ie or by phone on 01 6369446 to see what might suit you in various locations across the country. So, stay connected; it is the bedrock of well-being. It is the conversations we have with people in our lives that keep us alive.

Irish Independent

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