Last updated on 15th June 2010
Yesterday we had our "almost-midsummer lunch". We've been doing this for years - inviting lots of friends round for a pot-luck lunch sometime around midsummer. It's great. Quite hard work and great. Catero, my wife, and I are a pretty good team at this. Shortly after each of these yearly parties, we take a few minutes to think over what worked well and what maybe could have been organized better. We jot it down, so we have these records going way back. This way we don't have to think too much each year. We can just follow the evolving plans and suggestions from previous years - how much food to prepare, drink and flowers to buy, other organization to do. Getting ready for it and clearing up afterwards takes up most of the weekend, but it's a lot of fun. A lovely way too to have a chance of inviting lots of the people in our local social network at the same time. Stir them all up together and they have a good time. So do we. There's not much chance for the close, intimate conversations that I really like, but it's a different kind of celebration. Fizzy, warm, affectionate, funny.
The abstract of Sheldon Cohen's important paper "Social relationships and health" reads "The author discusses 3 variables that assess different aspects of social relationships - social support, social integration, and negative interaction. The author argues that all 3 are associated with health outcomes, that these variables each influence health through different mechanisms, and that associations between these variables and health are not spurious findings attributable to our personalities. This argument suggests a broader view of how to intervene in social networks to improve health. This includes facilitating both social integration and social support by creating and nurturing both close (strong) and peripheral (weak) ties within natural social networks and reducing opportunities for negative social interaction ... ". I've blogged in the past on research that supports this three part model of how our relationships affect our wellbeing. Social support, in Cohen's model, links more with deeper conversations - time with close friends really checking in with each other on a more emotional, caring, understanding level. Social integration is broader - it's more this midsummer lunch party. Fun. Good.
I have a series of metaphors I use in describing social networks. One is that our personal social network, our personal community, is like a garden. We need to look after it - and the lunch party is one way of doing this. Another metaphor is of relationships as food. Just as we need a balanced, healthy diet, so too we need enough good social support and social integration in our lives without too much of the junk food of social conflict. Another metaphor is of our personal community as a mountain. Hopefully at the top we have a few really close, dear relatives and friends. But a good social network seems to me to need the broad base of many more not-so-close friends and relatives. This broader base is usually where our closer friends will develop from. We don't have enough time in our lives to have lots of really close friends. Loving someone, knowing them really well, keeping in touch with their highs and lows, it's not something that happens quickly. But a social network that's a flagpole rather than a mountain is too vulnerable. If one or two dearer friends move away or become less available for any of a number of reasons, where will new close friends come from? Typically from friends who I already know - from people further down the friendship mountain.
These more distant relationships are usually "simpler", more "one-coloured" than the complex, interwoven, multiple-memoried relationships we have with dearer friends. These simpler relationships, further down the mountain, can still be precious, but they don't have the perspective, the layer-on-layerness of really close friendships. They don't have that sense of really being known and knowing - that sense that I can make a mess of things, not be on great form, and my friends will understand. They know me much better than just to judge me on one or two instances of "getting it wrong". A sense of being held and holding with affection and respect and deep warmth.
There's a page in the Good Knowledge section of this website entitled "Relationships in general". It lists the downloadable "Personal community map" - a chart that I find a very helpful way to describe our relationship "garden" or "mountain". It may take an hour or so to fill in properly, but it can be very worthwhile. Going with the chart are the "Personal community map instructions", which explains how to fill it in and gives some other background information, and the "Personal community map questions" which help to clarify how "nourishing and well-balanced" our relationship "diet" is. The question about "emotionally close relationships" aims to tap into Sheldon Cohen's "social support", which links too with the key need for "relatedness" researched and described in Self-Determination Theory. The question about "sharing activities" taps into Cohen's "social integration", while the question on relationships as "a source of stress" looks more at Cohen's third "negative interaction" aspect of social relationships. What's very clear is that relationships are crucial contributors to our health and wellbeing - a garden very well worth nurturing.