When the tyre is flat

A couple of months ago I found myself in a bit of a pickle. Driving to work one morning at the crack of, I heard a noise of some sort which got worse and worse as I continued driving. By the time I had pulled over, my front tyre was not just flat, but significantly pummelled.

My Dad’s taught me plenty of important life skills and one of those is how to successfully change a tyre. But it was Monday morning. I was wearing a pretty dress. I had much more important things to do. So I decided best just to get on and do them. But not before I asked someone to help with my car problem.

Reflecting back on this incident, I felt so incredibly blessed that not only did I have one person who I could call on to help. But had he not be around, there were probably a number of others I could try calling. And they all would have been more than willing.

And it’s not just when I’m in need of some practical and physical assistance. Over the past little while there has been some significant incidents of good things I’ve done and more questionable things I’ve done and very quickly I’ve been able to call over to a friend’s place or pick up the phone and talk it over.

At the moment, it appears my social networks and level of social connection is very good.

Our level of social connection is so important for our physical health and psychological well-being. One telling study showed that lack of social connection is a greater detriment to health than obesity, smoking and high blood pressure. On the flip side, strong social connection leads to a 50% increased chance of longevity.  Social connection strengthens our immune system, helps us recover from disease faster, and may even lengthen our life. People who feel more connected to others have lower rates of anxiety and depression. Moreover, studies show they also have higher self-esteem, are more empathic to others, more trusting and cooperative and, as a consequence, others are more open to trusting and cooperating with them. Social connectedness therefore generates a positive feedback loop of social, emotional and physical well-being. Unfortunately, the opposite is also true for those who lack social connectedness. Low social connection has been generally associated with declines in physical and psychological health as well as a higher propensity to antisocial behaviour that leads to further isolation.

Despite all of these fascinating findings and the clear importance for health and survival, sociological research suggests that social connectedness is waning. One US study found that the number of close confidantes (i.e., people with whom one feels comfortable sharing a personal problem) Americans claimed to have in 1985 was three. In 2004 that number dropped to one, with 25% of Americans saying that they have no one to confide in. This survey suggested that one in four people that we meet may have no one they call a close friend! This decline in social connectedness may explain reported increases in loneliness, isolation, and alienation and may be why studies are finding that loneliness represents one of the leading reasons people seek psychological counselling. Those who are not socially connected are more vulnerable to anxiety, depression, antisocial behaviour, and even suicidal behaviours which tend to further increase their isolation.

Turns out Ringo was right. We really do get by with a little help from our friends.

Brene Brown, one of greatest heroines and Professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, specialises in the arena of social connection She says:

 “A deep sense of love and belonging is an irresistible need of all people. We are biologically, cognitively, physically, and spiritually wired to love, to be loved, and to belong. When those needs are not met, we don't function as we were meant to. We break. We fall apart. We numb. We ache. We hurt others. We get sick.”

We are profoundly social creatures. We may think we want money, power, fame, beauty, eternal youth or a new car, but at the root of most of these desires is a need to belong, to be accepted, to connect with others, to be loved. We pride ourselves on our independence, on pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps, having a successful career and above all not depending on anyone. But, as psychologists from Maslow to Baumeister have repeatedly stressed, the truth of the matter is that a sense of social connection is one of our fundamental human needs.

In anyone doubts this, let’s think about the pain of rejection. A brain imaging study led by Ethan Kross at the University of Michigan suggests that the same parts of the brain are activated during social rejection as during physical pain. Another recent study lead by Shelley Taylor at the University of California suggests that stress due to conflict in relationships leads to increased inflammation levels in the body. Both physically and psychologically, we experience social connection as positive and rejection or loneliness as negative.

And being shy or introverted is no excuse. The most interesting fact about connection is that it has nothing to do with the number of friends you have on Facebook or the amount of community groups to which you belong. If you're a loner or an introvert, you can still reap the benefits. A sense of connection is internal: Researchers agree that the benefits of connection are actually linked to your subjective sense of connection. In other words, if you feel connected to others on the inside, you reap the benefits regardless. What totally excellent news! We can foster, nurture and build our internal sense of connection. It just takes a little courage and a spirit of adventure.

There have been numerous occasions when my sense of social connection has been catastrophically low. Where despite copious amounts of people and loved ones around me, due to physical distance or my own unwellness, shame and anxiety, I’ve succumbed to the horrors of isolation and loneliness. I didn’t feel as connected to my tribe as I do now.

The person I asked to help with my tyre pickle did a spectacular job. He attempted to get the wheel off – unsuccessfully. He then drove my car (on three wheels) to the tyre man who put two new tyres on and took a photo of my pummelled tyre for the wall of shame. He then came and picked me up from work. What a gem of a support to have. Thanks Razor!

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