Monday 21 October 2019

Today is Blue Monday: The importance of social connection when our spirits are low


Photo posed
Photo posed
Katie Byrne

Katie Byrne

Today is Blue Monday, purportedly the most depressing day of the year, but actually a protracted PR stunt that gained ground through pseudo-science and click-baiting.

There is no empirical evidence to suggest that the third Monday of January is the most depressing day of the year. Nonetheless, news feeds today will be awash with happiness hacks, motivational mantras and reasons to be cheerful.

We know the drill by now: cultivate an attitude of gratitude, get out into nature, laugh, dance, sing out loud and, if all else fails, buy a Terry's Chocolate Orange and eat it in front of a crackling fire.

The formula for happiness has been widely disseminated in recent years, but not entirely understood. Pick up any book on the art and science of happiness and it will, without fail, discuss the importance of social connection when our spirits are low.

This makes sense. We are social animals and our need for connection, to quote UCLA professor Matthew Lieberman, author of Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect, is as basic as our need for food and water.

The trouble is that we can very often confuse proximity with intimacy, and familiarity with affinity. Sometimes it feels like the person at the other side of the dinner table is a million miles away (the smartphone in his hand doesn't help matters). Sometimes sharing a smile with a stranger feels more authentic than an awkward hug with an old friend. When we think of loneliness, our thoughts usually turn to those who don't have a support system or a social circle. Yet we can feel lonely in the company of other people too.

We can feel lonely when we're among a large group of friends that we no longer connect with. We can feel lonely in a romantic relationship that has lost its spark.

Likewise, when we think of social isolation, we think of loners, hermits and misanthropes. We're less inclined to think about the teenagers who spend vast amounts of time in their bedrooms, posting videos on Snapchat.

Sure, a social media exchange with a friend can be of tremendous benefit when we're feeling blue, but nothing beats a face-to-face with a person who makes us feel comfortable enough to take the guard down.

When happiness researchers and positive psychologists talk about the importance of social connection, they are speaking in terms of quality, not quantity. They are talking about real connection, or what University of Houston courage researcher Brené Brown defines as, "The energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgement; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship". They are, for the most part, suggesting that we cultivate the connections that we have already established.

Of course, it's very easy to throw in the towel when we're no longer connecting with a friend or loved one, but it's worth remembering that good relationships, whether romantic or platonic, require hard work.

If you feel like you're no longer clicking with a friend, it's worth taking the time to be truly present the next time you meet. Put your phone away, avoid distractions and, to quote author Stephen Covey, "listen with the intent to understand" and not the "intent to reply".

Professional connections can also be strengthened but, as with any relationship, sharing is key. Think more about what you can give rather than what you can get. And remember, irrespective of how many business cards you accumulated at your last networking event - people do business with people.

If there is distance growing in your romantic relationship, try paying more attention to what relationship researcher Dr John Gottman calls "bids for emotional connection". Bids take the form of open-ended questions or revealing statements - "How do I look?"/"Maybe we should go for dinner on Friday?"/"Work was a nightmare today" - but are in fact thinly-veiled attempts to get "attention, affection or acceptance".

There are three responses to bids: positive (turning toward), negative (turning away), and no response (turning away).

When Dr Gottman conducted a study that followed up with couples six years after they married, he discovered that the couples that had stayed married turned toward one another 86pc of the time, while the couples that divorced turned toward each other only 33pc of the time.

Reframing the way you think of relationship tiffs can also be helpful. Yes, they create temporary distance but a constructive argument will also establish healthy boundaries and, ultimately, a deeper level of intimacy.

Author Marianne Williamson puts it best.

"Can the purpose of a relationship be to trigger our wounds? In a way, yes, because that is how healing happens; darkness must be exposed before it can be transformed.

"The purpose of an intimate relationship is not that it be a place where we can hide from our weaknesses, but rather where we can safely let them go."

If you're feeling a little blue this month, remember that meaningful connections can make us happier, healthier and more successful. We just have to build them first.

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