Continuing my “Happy Brain” series of blog posts focussing on the 3 P’s. Positive Thinking, Positive Action and this final post which is all about Positive Interaction. How we interact with others and how this affects our brain and our thoughts, in all sorts of ways!
“No man is an island,” wrote John Donne. Human beings are social beings and we thrive on positive social interaction. Christmas, like many holidays and celebrations throughout the year, performs an important social function for us. It makes us feel that we are part of a collective. As far back as we can trace, humans have hunted, gathered and in social groups because we are stronger together. The sense of belonging we experience makes us feel secure, safe and comfortable.
Christmas is a time when we get together with our family and friends, reconnecting in a positive way with “our tribe.” But what happens when Christmas is over? How can we stay connected to others, and be energised by our social interactions.
Friends and Family
Most of us enjoy socialising and making friends. It’s fun! Studies suggest that those who socialise a lot may live longer than those who don’t. Socialising has a strong influence on our health and happiness.
When I ask clients ‘Who is important to you?’ their answers include immediate family, extended family, friends and work colleagues. Some families are very close and connected. Others are more distant, even estranged. Many face challenges and disagreements.
Friendships generally relate to common background or shared interests. There is often a sense that “they just know me!” And this may well be true, because some childhood friendships last a lifetime.
We often say that you can choose your friends but not your family! Family are always part of ‘our tribe.’ Christmas can be a difficult time when family conflicts put strain on relationships and communication becomes difficult.
How Our Brain Responds to Social Interaction
The human brain, and in particular the neocortex, is much larger in humans than in primates and mammals of similar size. The neocortex is involved in higher order brain functions including social cognition functions:
- Conscious thought
- Regulation of behaviour
- Emotional intelligence – the ability to understand the feelings and intentions of others
Our brains are wired in such a way that we experience reward during mutual social interactions. And we feel sensations similar to physical pain when we are rejected socially or experience disapproval.
“We human beings are social beings. We come into the world as the result of others’ actions. We survive here in dependence on others. Whether we like it or not, there is hardly a moment of our lives when we do not benefit from others’ activities. For this reason, it is hardly surprising that most of our happiness arises in the context of our relationships with others.” Dalai Lama XIV
The Benefits of Positive Interaction
Without positive social interaction, we can feel distanced, depressed and unhappy. Research suggests that loneliness can be a greater risk to your health than smoking or lack of exercise. Developing positive social connections is better for you than any vitamin, diet, or exercise regimen!
In fact, studies have suggested that socializing may be as effective as a daily crossword puzzle for your brain. Making connections with people improves brain function because it constantly engages and exercises the mind, while also developing cognitive function. When we connect with another person, our brain and body release chemicals that make us feel good. One of these chemicals is oxytocin.
Levels of oxytocin, the ‘Cuddle Chemical’ (more about this in my Happy Brain blog post) increase when we hear a friendly voice or see a smiling face or make eye contact with someone.
But by far the best way to boost your oxytocin is through physical touch. A warm hug or a high five gives us a feeling of security and support. Feeling supported by others can do wonders for our confidence and self-esteem, and for our general sense of wellbeing.
Digital Connections versus Real Life Connections
Today’s digital society is very different from that of our ancestors. We are more likely to communicate with people via our smartphone when we’re on the bus or train, rather than actually talk to the person next to us! We’re more likely to send a text to a friend in need, rather than knock on their door. And we are all used to seeing people at social gatherings, or at the dinner table, who are more interested in their phone than the people around them!
There is of course a positive side to social media. My mum relies on social media for regular updates and photos of her grandchild. Most of us feel that through social media we are more connected with our social circle. But every picture and status we share can open us up to the anxiety of waiting for acknowledgement and approval. Recent research suggests that the quality and quantity of the responses we receive can affect the extent to which we feel supported and valued.
If you’ve ever moved away from your home then you know how much the people you know shape your everyday life and well-being. I have been lucky eough to live in many different countries and I know that emails, social media chats and video calls are all fantastic ways of keeping in touch with friends and family. But these relationships are based on shared real life experiences, when we meet face to face, share a meal or a drink, and chat and reminisce.
Positive social interactions offer so many mental health benefits:
- A feeling of belonging
- A sense of purpose
- Reduced levels of stress
- Improved self-worth
Positive social interaction is linked to improved physical health and a healthier lifestyle.
In my previous blog posts in this series – ‘Positive Thinking’ and ‘Positive Action’, I explained how your brain benefits from cognitive and physical activities.
So, it’s a great idea to choose a social activity that is also physically or cognitively engaging. For example join a running club or a bridge club, try an exercise class or a reading group.
Taking that first step towards more social interaction can be daunting. Especially if you’re shy and not used to engaging with new people. Solution focused therapy can be very effective in helping you create a social activity plan that suits your needs.
Ask yourself these solution focused questions:
- What are my interests or hobbies?
- What kind of personalities do I feel comfortable around?
- What’s going on in my community?
- Who have I not connected with recently?
- Who always makes me feel good?
- What can I do for someone to make them feel good?
Soon, Christmas will be over. And then we face a new decade! Think about using this time as a fresh start, an opportunity to take up a new social activity, so that you can connect with others and create positive social interactions. Choose an activity you enjoy so that you will stick with it!
If you’d like some Solution Focused help and coaching, do get in touch. I love to see my clients achieve their goals and will do everything I can to help build your confidence and improve your social interaction.
Other blog posts in this series: