It’s your social fuel tank, fill it how you like
Petting dogs or comfort eating are as beneficial as family or romance in meeting social needs, research finds
Missing your social life? Take comfort in guilty pleasures — they satisfy the same longings.
Binge-watching your favourite TV show, getting lost in a pulp fiction page-turner, eating comfort food or petting the dog are just as effective at meeting social needs as family connections or romantic relationships.
One of the psychologists who made the finding, recently published in the journal, Self and Identity, said it was particularly relevant during lockdown.
“I don’t think people realise that these non-traditional connections are as beneficial as we found in our research,” said Shira Gabriel, from the University at Buffalo in the US.
“Don’t feel guilty, because we found that these strategies are fine, as long as they work for you. What’s important is not how you’re filling the social fuel tank, but that your social fuel tank is getting filled.”
Co-author Elaine Paravati said: “People can feel connected through all sorts of means. We found that more traditional strategies, like spending time with a friend in person, doesn’t necessarily work better for people than non-traditional strategies, like listening to a favourite musician.
“In fact, using a combination of both of these types of strategies predicted the best outcomes, so it might be especially helpful to have a variety of things you do in your life to help you feel connected to others.”
Gabriel said there was a lot of research on the importance of traditional social strategies, such as interpersonal relationships or group memberships, but no one had compared the effectiveness of traditional and non-traditional practices.
The research team asked 173 people about their wellbeing and their social connections, which Gabriel said were a basic need for humans.
“The longer you go without those sorts of connections, the lower the fuel tank, and that’s when people start to get anxious, nervous or depressed, because they lack needed resources.”
Participants used as many as 17 different ways to fill their social needs, with most reporting a combination of traditional and non-traditional social strategies.
“This is especially relevant now, with social-distancing guidelines changing the ways people connect with others,” said Paravati. “We can utilise these non-traditional strategies to help us feel connected, fulfilled and find more meaning in our lives.”
Gabriel said the findings challenged unwritten cultural rules about creating a sense of belonging. “We live in a society where people are questioned if they’re not in a romantic relationship, if they decide not to have children or they don’t like attending parties,” she said.
“There are implicit messages that these people are doing something wrong. That can be detrimental to them. The message we want to give to people, and that our data suggest, is that that’s just not true.”
Paravati said: “We have evidence that as long as you feel like you’re fulfilling your belongingness needs, it doesn’t really matter how you’re doing it.”