“No man is an island” – Thomas Merton
Our mental health and personal well being are tied up in the quality of our personal relationships. The more closely we are connected to the people we love, the happier we feel and the more personal satisfaction we have in our lives. Most people rate moments of connection and shared enjoyment with their loved ones as their most important life experiences.
These important relationships not only include family and personal friends but also the wider groups and communities we belong to. Forming connections and a sense of community with work colleagues, neighbours and the various groups that make up our identity (such as sports, hobbies, religious and community groups), all contribute to our well-being.
Forming a sense of belonging with other people around a shared mission or identity is a major contributor to our sense of personal meaning in life. Our personal resilience is interwoven into resilience of the communities to which we belong. It is from the web of our relationships and connections with other people that we draw our strength. Such communities can lift us when we are down and give us the capacity to deal with whatever challenges come our way.
However, creating and maintaining happy personal relationships and belonging to positive communities is not straightforward. We might start out with a loving supportive relationship with a partner but then inattention, neglect and stressful life events take their toll leading to relationship conflict and breakdown. At this point, the relationship far from being a source of well-being and happiness becomes a source of stress and dissatisfaction.
In addition, you might initially join a positive community group that is bound around a positive mission to make the world a better place, but then the members get sidelined into infighting, scapegoating, as the community becoming divisive and in danger of fracture. At this point, rather than providing a sense of belonging, these communities can isolate, hurt and damage many people.
As a result, it is very important to continuously attend to and nurture our relationships with the important people in lives as well as taking time to strengthen the communities to which we belong.
Attending to important relationships
The two major challenges in maintaining close personal relationships are neglect (eg not putting time into the relationship) and not dealing constructively with conflict (thus letting problems fester until they are out of control).
Being proactive in your personal relationships and attending to them (even when you don’t feel like it) is the key to keeping them happy supportive and personally satisfying
Take time: Make sure to spend regular time with your partner, children, family and friends. One-to-one relaxed time, when you have plenty of space to chat and have fun together is best.
Be present: In our busy lives a major challenge is simply not being present with the ones we love. Whether this is being spaced out or checking email when they are talking or being caught up worries or stress that you are not there for them.
Express appreciation: Relationships are nurtured by frequent displays of appreciation. Whether these are simply kind words of thanks to an important colleague, a gift to an important friend, affection with your partner or a reassuring hug for a child, everyone needs to be appreciated and nurtured in close relationships.
Listen: Listening is most important communication skill of all. Taking time to understand the other person’s point of view is key to connecting with them, and is especially important as the first step to managing conflict.
Learn to communicate: Relationships suffer when one person does not communicate about their needs and important issues or when they do they do it do it in an aggressive, explosive or dis-respectful way. Learning to talk respectfully and assertively is the second most important communication skill.
Apologise and forgive: All close relationships will involve disappointment and getting hurt at times. Taking responsibility and apologising, when you have hurt someone and moving on and forgiving, when you have been hurt are key to maintaining relationships through hard times.
Attending to the communities we belong to
When we belong to a functional community it is very easy to assume that it will always be supportive and always be there for us. However, just like families and personal relationships, all the groups and organisations that you belong to need to be nurtured and reinvigorated.
This includes local community organisations such as the residents association, your child’s scouts group, or your soccer club or national organisations such as a political party, the Church or the GAA. All these groups require leaders and members willing to contribute and give back to support them. Interestingly, many studies highlight that it is the people who take leadership roles in community and voluntary groups who benefit the most in terms of their personal well-being and satisfaction. In simple terms, it is people who give the most that get the most from these communities.
If you belong to a community take time to improve it by:
– giving time as a volunteer (eg as well as being a runner in your local park run, become one of the volunteers who organise it)
– taking on a supportive role (eg if you have benefited by attending Alcoholics Anonymous, why not volunteer to be a sponsor to help others?)
– assuming a leadership role (eg put yourself forward to be on your local school committee so you can change things positively).
Or, if you are not in many community groups, get out there and join one, picking one that reflects your passions and talents and which gives you a chance to contribute. Remember, by becoming more involved in communities, as well as making a difference you also become the beneficiary as you make supportive connections with people.
Tips for improving relationships and community
Take a moment to reflect on what are the important personal relationships in your life at the moment. Are any of your relationships under stress at the moment? Are there any that could benefit from some nurturing? If so make a decision to do something to improve things.
For example, you could:
– Take time to ring a friend you have not seen in a while
– Send a card/ email of thanks to a colleague who helped you out.
– Make a decision to listen to a family member who you are in conflict with.
– Apologise to a loved one you might have offended.
– Commit to a routine of being there to read with your child at bedtime.
Take a moment to reflect on what are the most important communities and groups you belong to in your life at the moment (or ones you would like to belong to). Think how you can get involved, become more engaged, and take a leadership role in these groups.
If you feel lonely without many supportive connections and communities in your life, make a decision to get out there and meet people. Link in with family members, make contact with old friends and get involved in new communities that match you passions and interests as well as your needs and desires.
John Sharry, Irish Times Newspaper, March 2018
This is the one of a six-part series of articles by John Sharry, originally published in The Irish Times newspaper in February – April 2018.
Links to all the articles in this series are:
Part 1: Purpose and Meaning
Part 2: Self-compassion and Self-acceptance
Part 3: Relationships and Belonging
Part 4: Strengths and Flow
Part 5: Health, Rest and Fitness
Part 6: Cultivating a Positive Mind