social connection and belonging

On Thriving

Have you ever observed young children at play? Their natural curiosity leads them to endlessly explore the world – open and forever inquisitive. There is so much to see, touch, taste, smell and find out. For them, the world is an oyster and they feel they are a part of it. They feel they belong. They are thriving!

And have you ever read those incredible stories of centenaries, celebrating their birthdays? Have you noticed that in a subtle way, they share something with the youngsters roaming the playgrounds? While usually not quite as active anymore as the little ones, these seniors often embody that same quality. Even though the expression of this quality has naturally changed over the years, at some level they are still thriving!

Let me explain why this can so significant to you. Between the 1940s and 1950s, American psychologist Abraham Maslow developed the hierarchy of needs model. The five levels of his model outline at the bottom the basic need for air, food, water and shelter. The highest level expresses humans’ need for personal growth and fulfilment.

Interestingly, he rated the need to belong and to connect to a group, either family, work or interest group, as neither a basic nor a high level need. At the time, there was no modern scientific technology available to back up his theory. Despite the usefulness of his model, part of his theory is, in fact, incorrect.

In order to thrive, belonging and connecting are fundamental human needs – as fundamental as the need for air, food, water and shelter. For seniors wanting to make the most of their golden years, this is crucial to know. If we don’t feel that we belong, we experience what is called social pain.

Neuroscience provides evidence that social pain and physical pain are processed in the same way in the brain. In addition, experiencing social pain leads to the opposite of thriving. Feeling excluded and feeling that we don’t belong leads to loneliness, depression and a sense of uselessness. The health impact of such mental-emotional states is enormous. Social pain is very painful indeed.

Reading the amazing stories of centenaries, it seems that they have something in common that allows them to thrive, no matter their age. Over time, these seniors have often built a very solid social network.

They play bridge, attend seniors events, love a chat, and are overall lively social creatures. They very successfully meet their basic need for belonging and social connection. They thrive in their own way because they belong.

Thriving also means that we keep a sense of wonder and awe about life, even if we have experienced many setbacks and challenges over the years. So, if you want to thrive, make sure that you get your need for belonging and social connection met.

Spend some time tossing ideas around how you could meet that need in a positive, light-hearted and fun way. Then make a personal commitment that you will end 2011 on a high note, with clarity and a set of actions on how you will move towards (more) thriving.

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