Network, network, network. Adults in the business world certainly know how important it is to stay connected to their colleagues and peers if they are to have successful careers, but did you know that the number and strength of our social connections are also very important for happiness?

The upshot of 50 years of happiness research is that the quantity and quality of a person's social connections—friendships, relationships with family members, closeness to neighbors, etc.—is so closely related to well-being and personal happiness the two can practically be equated. People with many friendships are less likely to experience sadness, loneliness, low self-esteem, and problems with eating and sleeping.

We live in a world where social media (like Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, and text messaging) make it easier to be "connected" to loads of people all the time. Many of us also live in a society that values privacy and independence over proximity and interdependence. Americans dream of country homes where they can go days without seeing any neighbors. Setting aside that happiness can come from establishing our connection to nature and monk-like training retreats, physical isolation is a recipe for loneliness—a particularly potent form of sadness. When it comes to happiness, teaching our kids to value and foster proximity and connection is a much better bet than a house with a long gravel driveway.

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Robert Putnam wrote an interesting book, Bowling Alone, about how we Americans are becoming less and less connected to one another. As a parent, it makes me think about how we spend our time: if our happiness is best predicted by the quantity and quality of our relationships with others, how can we foster lots of strong relationships between our family and our communities? I often feel so busy—sometimes too busy to spend time with my friends. But then I think about what I'm modeling there: if I'm too busy for my friends, what DO I have time for? Little is more important for our over-all well-being than our relationships with other people.

When it comes to fostering social connections in kids, I see three arenas for discussion and development.

  1. The first is our family relationships—where it all starts—so in the coming weeks I'll blog about the importance of establishing secure caregiver-child attachments. Social and emotional intelligence is critical for forming strong relationships, and the parent-child bond is a great place to teach the emotional literacy that will lead to social intelligence.
  2. As kids get older, having the skills to negotiate and maintain relationships becomes important, and so I'll also be blogging about teaching kids how to successfully resolve conflicts. You might also want to check out some previous posts about gratitude and forgiveness. Having the skills we need to forgive can make or break a relationship, and people who consciously practice expressing gratitude and appreciation have stronger relationships.
  3. Finally, altruism—being kind to others, even strangers—creates deep and positive relationships, and so I'll be blogging more about teaching kindness in coming weeks as a part of this series about fostering strong relationships.

Until then, please post your stories. Where have your kids created their strongest bonds? What skills do they have that serve them particularly well in this arena?

Regarding point No. 2, above: Watch this video to learn how to teach kids to be grateful.

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© 2008 Christine Carter, Ph.D.

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If you have the time, I think there are some other things to be addressed in this topic area.  Somewhere along the way we divide into “people who need people” (try not to think of Barbara Streisand) and people who don’t, so much; that is, there are people who need the validation of the group and those who don’t care as much (myers briggs E’s vs I’s, if you will).  I have always wondered if this is “hard-wired” into us, learned generally or a result of specific experiences.  What role does that play in achieving “happiness” through “connectedness?” And does the “connectedness” = “happiness” reduction cause us to ignore the reality of what appears to be an innate human social interaction that marginalizes those folks who are different?  Are there alternatives that are just better for some people? And how do we help them achieve that understanding and direct them on their path to happiness?
I would says that some of it is definitely in the genes and some of it is experiential.  My wife and I have both always had small circles of friends and even smaller circles of close friends.  As I watch my boys though, I see also that experience plays a factor.
There was a time when I’d joke and says that everyone in town knew my older son.  He was just out there doing stuff and having a good time.  He really craved (and still does) external validation.  Then, in 3rd grade (at least that’s when we noticed it) he started to get pushed out of the big group of sporty kids.  For the next two years he struggled with this transition.  Now he has a very small group of real friends, maybe one.  I wonder if the social dynamic had been different if he would ultimately have made this transition anyway since he can immerse himself in a book deeper than anyone I’ve ever seen and he seems happiest on an outdoorsy family vacation. Regardless, his social experience did happen and there is no amount of parental modeling/instruction/advice that can make you popular on the playground.  And aside from him there were already those kids who were outside the in-crowd and having to deal with that.  Those kids who are pushed to the margins definitely start to question the value of the group and eschew social connectedness on a large scale. Why wouldn’t they?  Who wants to suffer that treatment?
My younger son, on the other hand, has never wanted or needed the group.  He has always had a small circle of friends.  Ironically, being somewhat disaffected and having that self-confidence has resulted in his always being accepted by whichever group he happens to be near and in being generally very popular.  He could, if he wanted it, have a very large social circle.
I guess what I’m suggesting here is that though they are in roughly the same situation in terms of the number and strength of their social connections, my boys personalities define whether that = happiness or not.  Glass half empty vs. glass half full. 
It also begs the question of what the impact of parental modeling is.  The boys have grown up in the same house.
Some times its a bit much to think about.


Drew Bendon | 5:16 pm, November 3, 2008 | Link


This is an excellent post. I especially love it because it validates my values both as a parent and pediatric therapist. 
As a parent, we have integrated gratefulness into our daily lives by discussing what we’re grateful for before we eat dinner together (sort of in place of a traditional Grace) every night, and that has been a wonderful practice.
As a therapist, I talk to parents all the time about the long-term outcomes being best for kids with autism spectrum disorders when the primary focus (especially early on) is on social-communicative competence.  I teach families that children can learn skill upon skill, but if they don’t have the fundamentals of communication and engagement in place for positive social interaction, they won’t really have a place to practice those skills b/c it’ll be awfully hard to find a job *and* they are going to be at higher risk for mental health challenges. 
So AMEN!  (And I just posted this on Facebook and Twitter, and will be emailing it around.)  Thank you and I’ll look forward to the rest of this series.

Jordan Sadler, SLP | 6:48 pm, November 9, 2008 | Link

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