Building a Social Support Network: Living Longer and Better
People who are lonely, depressed and isolated are more likely to die prematurely than people who feel a connection in their life. Feeling connected and cared for helps us cope with every day stress and recover from illness. A social support network can add years to our lives.
Having a supportive social network isn’t something we are either born with or born without. There are strategies we can learn that will help us build a social network. Building a social support network can involve increasing the number of social contacts we have and improving the quality of the social relationships we already have.
Social supports are relationships that are rewarding, enriching and helpful. They have a positive focus and have minimal conflict. Disagreements and differences of opinion are present in supportive relationships, but they are resolved in a peaceful and effective way. A social support network can include a variety of people; family, friends, spouses, girlfriend/boyfriend, church or spiritual group members, an athletic team, a personal trainer, a mental health professional, a classmate, neighbors, club members or support group members.
Supportive relationships can make us feel good about ourselves and more optimistic about the future. Social relationships are an important part of our lives.We all have our own preferences about what makes up a good support network, and our preferences change over time. We have different ideas about what we want from our social relationships at different times, and whether we want to make changes in the number of relationships we have or the quality of those relationships. Reflecting or journaling on the following questions can be a helpful way to decide what, if any, changes we want to make in our social support network
- Who are the people in your life that support you?
- What kinds of things do people do that you find supportive?
- Which aspects of your relationships are you satisfied with?
- Which aspects of your relationships would you like to change?
- In what ways are you supportive of other people?
- Are you satisfied with the way that you are supportive of other people?
- Would you like to have more social support in your life?
Increase the Number of Relationships in Our Support Network
If we want to increase the number of people in our network, we will need to find places to meet people, have something to say to them, and listen to what they have to say. If we are shy or have had negative experiences meeting people in the past these steps can be more challenging and may need to be taken gradually over time. For example, a shy person might want to practice just going to where people are more often, smiling more or only saying, “Hello” at first. If we have had negative past experiences with meeting people, we can look at what happened in the past and things we can do to get a better response from others next time. Sometimes, reviewing the benefits of having a support network can help us overcome any resistance we might have because of shyness or a bad experience. We might also call upon the support of someone already in our network to help us at first. We can explain to them what our goal is and how they can help.
We can meet people in a lot of places. It is generally easier to meet people in public places where people go for recreation, pleasure, a class or a hobby; or where people go to do errands or to conduct business. It can be helpful to be open to meeting people in the places we already go, and making ourselves appear approachable when we go by making eye contact, smiling, and not looking too busy or pre-occupied. While we don’t need to go to extremes to appear “perfect” to others, we do want to be sure that we appear neat and clean. Clothes that are wrinkled, stained, fit poorly or have an odor will not help our cause! It can also lower our self confidence. Dressing too well for the occasion can work against us too, as it can be perceived as intimidating or inappropriate by others. Some good places to meet people are:
- Public library
- School or a class
- Volunteer program
- Support groups
- Places of worship
- Coffee shops
- Concerts, theatre, opera
- Special interest groups or activities – political campaigns, environmental clean up projects, charity drives and fund raisers, kite flying contests, cook offs, baking contests, quilting clubs, writer groups, tour groups, walking clubs, nature or bird watching groups
- Health or exercise clubs – YWCA or YMCA or private gyms and fitness clubs
- Community events – fairs, festivals, civic groups, park and school board meetings
Once we have decided where we will go to meet people, it helps to know how to start a conversation with someone, and how to keep the conversation going once it is started. We want to choose someone who does not appear to be busy. If they are busy, they will not want to stop what they are doing to talk to us.
Next, we will want to choose an interesting topic. Usually, we can say something about what we are doing when we start the conversation. For example, if I have entered a cooking contest, I can comment on the contest or my entry. If we are at a museum or on a tour, I can talk about the art piece I am looking at or a site on the tour. I can also choose a topic about something else. I might comment about another tour I took or one I plan to take. I can comment about the weather, a recent event, or a hobby or interest. I can start a conversation by introducing myself, but I will need to be prepared to say something interesting after the introduction is made.
Once a conversation is started, we can focus on keeping it going. It is important to look at people and make good eye contact with them. This sends a message that we are interested in them and what they have to say. Some people are uncomfortable with eye contact or belong to a culture where too much eye contact is considered rude or inappropriate. Looking near a person’s eyes, at their forehead or nose, is an alternative.
Smiling and nodding is another way to show interest, and shows that we are listening to the other person. It also shows the other person that we don’t need to dominate the conversation by doing all the talking, and that we are interested in their ideas and point of view. We can now shift our focus to what the other person is saying or doing. Asking questions about what they are doing or saying, or responding to their comments shows that we are interested and will keep the conversation going. If they don’t seem interested in continuing the conversation, we can change to another topic or politely end the conversation.
At this early stage of meeting someone, we want to be careful not to share too much information (TMI) that is very personal. Sharing too much too soon often makes people uncomfortable and can make it harder to make a connection with this person. When we get to know them better over time, we can share more personal information and they will feel more comfortable talking about more personal topics.
Improve the Quality of Our Social Relationships
The most rewarding relationships are those in which both people care about each other and respect each other’s points of view. Showing a person that you care about him or her is an important part of being in a close relationship. If we want to develop close friendships or intimate relationships, we will want to be able to share more about ourselves, be open to listening when the other person shares, and be willing to do things with and for the other person. Three main things to consider when developing close relationships are the things we say to the other person, the things we do with or for the other person, and how much and how soon we share personal information about ourselves.
Expressing positive feelings and giving compliments draws people closer together. This can include expressing and showing affection for each other, but can also be expressing admiration or appreciation for a person’s actions or personality traits. Asking questions about the other person is way of getting to know the other person’s thoughts and feelings, understanding their point of view, and showing an interest in getting to know them better. Gradually sharing more about ourselves can also help develop closeness. We can share our feelings and opinions.We can share about our interests and things we like. We can share about past experiences. We’ll discuss more about when and what to share about ourselves below.
Understanding another person’s point of view involves imagining and asking what that person might be thinking or feeling about something. We can imagine how the other person might think and feel, but it is important to check it out with the person to see if we are correct. For example, if a person shares about a class they are taking, we might say, “It sounds like you don’t like this class.Is that right?” The person might respond with, “It’s not the class so much as the time the class starts. It is stressful to travel so far in rush hour traffic and worry about getting there on time. I also don’t have time to eat and am usually hungry.”
Doing things together is important. Identifying some things that we can both enjoy and doing them together can be rewarding and enriching, and bring us closer. Negotiating and compromising are ways to show we care and that we are not selfish. In close relationships, neither person can always have their own way. Other ways to show we care are offering to help, surprising the other person in unexpected ways and at unexpected times, and spending some of our time trying to make them happy. “Being there” in their time of need, and we all have times of need, is an important way of showing we care. Just recognizing when someone needs help is an important way to show we care.
Deciding when, what and how much to share about ourselves can be difficult. If we share too much too soon, we risk the other person feeling threatened and pulling away from the relationship. If we share too little, it will be difficult to have a close relationship.It is helpful to know that when two people are close, they tend to share the same amount of information about themselves. For example, if one person shares something about their past, the other person usually matches this and shares something about their past. We can sometimes follow the other person’s lead and share as much as they share; and share more over time as we get to know each other better. Deciding what we want to share and what we want to keep to ourselves is a personal decision. It is based partly on whether or not we believe the person will accept us after we have shared.
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