Two simple ways to improve mental wellbeing
Relationships are one of the most important predicters of wellbeing. Research shows that people who are more connected socially to the community, and to family and friends are happier, healthier, and live longer. They also tend to have fewer mental health problems.
In a long-running Harvard study which has tracked the health since 1938, one of the key findings has repeatedly been that happiness, health and wellbeing don’t come from fame, wealth, or working hard – but instead, they come from our relationships.
Although Facebook and other online communities can help us feel a sense of connection and have a positive impact, it is the neurochemical response that occurs when we interact face-to-face that makes the strong positive contribution to our mental wellbeing.
And yet, even though relationships are one of the most important aspects of wellbeing, we can forget that our connections to others are critical for good mental health.
We sometimes take them for granted, or forget that good relationships require an investment of our most precious commodity – time.
That doesn’t mean we benefit from all friends or every relationship: The quality of relationships matters. Being in a toxic relationship, or living in an environment filled with conflict appears to be worse for our health than being alone. It’s better for our mental wellbeing to have no relationship than to be in a poor-quality or unhappy relationship.
Relationships are important right across the lifespan. In childhood, attachment to caregivers is known to predict mental health and relationship satisfaction in adulthood. In the teenage years, relationships with friends and peers become increasingly important as young adults build independence. And as we go through life, relationship breakdowns, changing family dynamics, divorce, retirement, poor work-life balance and bereavement can pose significant and real risks for isolation or loneliness.
Stable relationships are associated with happiness, health and life satisfaction. And relationships don’t always have to mean having a best friend, romantic relationship or close family – the benefits appear to arise from being connected socially.
In fact the evidence is so strong that a 2010 review of 148 studies found that being less socially connected brought with it a higher risk of early death than smoking, drinking or obesity.
What does it mean to be socially connected?
Social connectedness isn’t about how popular you are, or how many friends you might have. It’s about belonging in a group.
Although the research isn’t entirely clear, benefits such as having a role to play in your community, or belonging to something bigger than yourself seem to be important. A sense of belonging and a purpose appears to be protective.
In contrast, loneliness and isolation are key predicators for poor psychological health, poor physical health, and lower life satisfaction.
How can I become more socially connected, and form better relationships?
Just like making sure we exercise, eat well, and get enough sleep, we often have to work at our relationships. They can change. We can change. Although everyone has different needs, there are many different communities around us that we can join and play an active part within.
That might be a workplace community, a residential community, or a Parents and Friends Community at your child’s school. It might be a volunteer group such as Big Brothers Big Sisters, a gardening club, a crochet group, your church, a cooking group, an orienteering community, or Park Run on a Saturday morning at a location near you – finding the community you want to belong to can involve discovering what interests you. The good news is that there are thousands of groups around, covering every kind of community.
There are existing, welcoming groups around such as Men’s Shed and the growing number of Women’s Sheds, which set up shared spaces for men or women to come together and form a community. And of course, you can always create your own community!
Two ways to improve your mental wellbeing
- Join in a community
- Participate – invest time into face to face relationships
Getting connected involves time and effort. It requires a commitment. It requires getting off electronic devices and connecting in the real world, face to face. Being present, listening, participating and being heard.
Although it requires time, energy and committing, making those investments into your relationships is predictive of increasing your mental wellbeing.
Article by Dr Amanda Mullin
Dr Amanda Mullin is a Doctor of Clinical Psychology, and the Founder of Mindworx Psychology, an award-winning Clinical Psychology and Executive Coaching Practice based in Sydney, Australia. With a family of her own, a commitment to excellence, and her own set of hurdles to jump, Dr Amanda understands the challenges faced in avoiding burnout and the search for positive mental health.
Dr Amanda is the creator of the popular “Think Differently” program, with the big, fat, hairy, audacious goal to change lives for the better.