Happiness Tip: Cultivate Your Support Network

The importance of strengthening your connections with others.

cultivate-your-support-network-christine-carter

As I write this, I’m stranded by the side of the road in a car that won’t start, with two hungry and irritable children.

It is well past dinnertime, on a school night, and it will be another 10 minutes before help arrives.

Thank goodness help is about to arrive! My mother, who lives 35 minutes away during rush hour, jumped in the car the moment she got my distress call. She will take the kids to dinner nearby while I continue to the wait for the tow truck. And my father, who wouldn’t miss dinner with his granddaughters given the unexpected opportunity (though we ate with him last night) will wait for the tow truck with me and then drive me to the restaurant.

I say this all of the time, but if we’ve learned anything in the last 100 years about the science of happiness, it is that happiness is best predicted by the breadth and the depth of our connections to other people. Never is that more true than when things go awry, it seems to me now.

Things go wrong. Life is full of difficulty. Cars break down, and we need help. Although part of me would really like to not have to call my parents for help so frequently — dependence doesn’t always feel good in our independence oriented culture — I know that I’m so, so lucky to have such a strong support network.

I also know that it is not entirely chance that my support network is strong: it is something that I work to nurture. For my happiness, and the happiness of my children.

Take Action: Today, do something to nurture the people in your support network. What can you do to strengthen your ties to the people around you? Invite someone to dinner (or drop off a needed meal), jump start your neighbor’s car, call someone who needs a shoulder to cry on.

Join the Discussion: What will you do to strengthen your connections with others? Leave a comment below to inspire others.

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  • Alliummail

    Today it is my Mom’s 70th birthday. I planned a memorable celebration for just the 2 of us. We will remember it for our life times.

  • Phone some people I have haven’t spoken with for a long while. This will show I care much more than sending an email.

    • I think the best way to communicate that we care is with a hand-written note. My friend Andrea always sends them, and I’m always so touched.

  • Zenner

    Giving spare baby stuff to a friend

    • Filling other people’s needs (in general – with baby stuff or otherwise) helps us feel connected.

  • Have fun with your friends. My writing group has recently started meeting an additional once a month to see a play together or go to a reading. And my “Moms” group meets once a month for dinner and drinks. Last month we went out dancing and this month we went out for lunch, pedicures, and browsed thrift stores. The better we know each other, the easier it is to anticipate what other people need.

    • One thing that research shows will be particularly effective about this: the routine of it. When people join (or start) a ritualized group (meaning, you meet at regular intervals, like the first Monday of every month) social ties strengthen more quickly!

      • How fascinating! I know that for me, having our meetings at a regular time (2nd Sunday or every Tuesday at 9:30) makes it part of the routine. The whole family expects it to happen so we are prepared for the event (dinner is planned or whatever) and I’m more likely to make the meeting!

  • Thanks for sharing your story and starting this great conversation. To nurture my support network, I create hand-made greeting cards and send them to people. I leave the card blank so the person can use it later, and include on a sticky note a short note telling the person how much I appreciate them and why. 

    • What a great idea – giving people art that they can then use to strengthen their own connections! Brilliant.

  • Nancy Davis Kho

    Two words: Casserole Brigade! At my church we have a crack team of families who swarm in to provide a home-cooked, nutritious meal every night for families in our church with illnesses, new babies, or other situations that make it hard for them to cook. It’s such a small thing to prepare a meal, but means so, so much to the person who a.) doesn’t have to worry about cooking and b.) gets a concrete reminder that they are cared for by their community.

    Doesn’t have to be related to a religious institution either – as Christine knows, since we are both privileged to be part of a group of friends bringing meals to another friend right now whose family is enduring some very hard times. Web sites like LotsaHelpingHands make it pretty easy to coordinate.

    • I do feel priviledged to be cooking for another family — in addition to feeling more connected, ironically it makes me feel less overwhelmed by all I need to get done.

  • Joanna

    I love this!  I call it Taking Names – of great teachers who can help us, and friends to bring along for the ride.

  • i do a few things …  a hand-written, unexpected note (or card – hello, thanks, appreciation, just thought about …) like tamara mentioned in her comments … for work colleagues (whose work days can be demanding), create little “take a break” opportunities – yogurt runs, coffee runs, walk/stretch, sit in silence, or just a “need to talk” moment and sit and listen. thanks for asking!

  • Sarah

    I’m hosting a playdate right now for a family that helps us immensely all year with carpools – it’s the least I can do while I am home on spring break!  I also have been helping a friend through a difficult personal/legal situation this week.  I know that I have friends who would do the same for me, and I want to make sure that she knows that the same is true for her.

  • JAR

    Although I fully embrace the idea that a support network is essential, I’m not sure that this email is helpful to the many people who have neither parents nor family to support them. Yes you are lucky to have such a wonderful support network. The rest of us do our best to have one too, even though we’re orphans. Different starting point.

    • I think the many comments here offer many helpful suggestions for people who don’t have family as an automatic support network. The point is that whether it is with friends or family or neighbors or people in your school community: supportive relationships are often consciously built.

  • Mummyfrog

    I think I will try to listen more and talk less in order to help look after the people that look after me. And I hear you JAR… we also have a pretty dismal support network with both our Mum’s deceased and the rest of our families far away. Many of our friends are busy with their own young kids. I admit I am my own worst enemy sometimes and decline an offer of help because I don’t like to trouble people who I know are just as flat out as me or I am just too used to going it alone. I am always grateful for just the offer though. Thanks Christine – I am partway through your book 🙂

  • Jenepen

    Christine, what are parents for? Parenthood does not finish when we ‘grow up’. I recall my mother only days before she died gently speaking to me when something upset me, and I was 44. My two girls (aged 35 and 33) know they only have to lift the phone and I will be there for them, in good times and bad! That takes care of family, friends, well, I think it is much the same, friends are only an extension of your family, aren’t they?

    • My parents are the same way — but not everyone has parents like ours! And friendships aren’t instant for most people, either…

  • Laura

    Thanks so very much for this important reminder…yesterday I sent off 5 packages – for no special occasion..just to let some dear and close people know I love them and am feeling the need to connect. This is essential to remember and appreciate…every day I remind myself how fortunate I truly am….

  • Tashaw

    My single best friend and her baby moved across the country and now live two blocks away, which is one of the greatest gifts of the year for me. In the middle of the night last night she called terrified about her son’s breathing (he has asthma). I went over in my bathrobe and sat with her as she talked with an advice nurse and calmed him. Then I loaned her my car for the day so she could take him to the doctor. They came over for dinner and I felt so much better seeing them healthy in the daylight!

    • Wonderful. You can see why strong social connections are so highly correlated with happiness!

  • Cfarris1berkeley

    My family as well as my husband’s live in other parts of the country. The first year of parenting my little one was utter exhaustion because I was not brave enough to ask for help. About 6 months ago I joined a moms group and am now making connections with other moms. We meet for play dates and trade babysitting. One mom in particular is exchanging 2 hours 2 days a week while we both finish hard school. Each of us now automatically offers to watch each others children when we have doctor’s appointments, hair cut, run errands, etc. I feel less isolated now!

    I also meet friends at either the gym or go for a walk 4-5 times a week. Scheduling exercise with a buddy continues to solidify the friendship while doing something healthy for our bodies. 🙂

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  • geoaquamariner

    As the old proverb states…What you give, is what you get.  Why not kindness, love & compassion.  I’ts part of my internal composition!
    Thanks for sharing!

  • Kate

    Host dinners and other get-togethers at my home. So many people are “busy” it is hard to do but people appreciate it so much as long as you leave it open ended enough that they do not feel burdened.

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