Feeling connected to a social group and to nature is good for us, science says. It increases our individual emotional and physical health, and also the well being of planet Earth and our species as a whole. There is even evidence that “the roots of lifelong happiness…stretch back into childhood,” where social connectedness has been found to play a more important role than academic success.
To help strengthen children’s connectedness, families and schools should “nurture kids’ social skills, not just their academic ones.” But how can we know which programs and activities will do this? Although being social seems pretty straightforward, this area of study isn’t obvious to those of us who have grown up on a steady diet of traditional academics. Often the best way to teach children skills is to model them, so learning how to foster our own connectedness is a good start.
U.C. Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center offers insight on building social capital, both in children and adults. “Social capital refers to family and friends who support you through difficult times, as well as neighbors and coworkers who diversify your network and expose you to new ideas.” Developing these networks can be as easy as giving a gift of time to another person by doing something with them or for them on your own time.
Active listening also builds social connection and takes seven simple steps. Carve out fifteen minutes to sit down with someone and find out how they’re doing. Here’s how to do it:
- Paraphrase what the other person has said after they complete a thought: “It sounds like…”
- Ask questions to clarify and encourage elaboration: “When you say_____, do you mean_____?”
- Express empathy by validating others’ feelings: “I can understand how that situation could cause frustration.”
- Use engaged body language by making eye contact, nodding, facing the other person, maintaining a relaxed body posture, minding facial expressions and not attending to distractions (like your phone).
- Avoid judgment by accepting the other person’s perspective for what it is and try not to interrupt with counter-arguments.
- Avoid giving advice and remember that problem solving is usually more effective after both parties feel heard.
- Take turns and ask if you can share your perspective when they are done. Use “I” statements when sharing: “I feel overwhelmed when…” or “I know you’ve been very busy lately and…”
These two activities are just a start. For more strategies, visit The Greater Good’s website on how to build connection and practice with your family and friends.
Strengthening social relationships is just one piece of the connectedness equation. Bonding with nature is also beneficial, for a variety of reasons. Studies have shown that being in or viewing nature positively impacts our psychological and emotional health by calming our nervous systems, producing feelings of awe, wonder, gratitude and reverence, and reducing stress.
However, the thought of going out into nature actually increases stress for many of us: planning a camping trip or making time for a hike can feel like more than we can handle. But don’t worry! When you can’t make it into the great outdoors, a dose of something less taxing will do. Green spaces in cities and indoor nature, like at the San Francisco Botanical Gardens or the California Academy of Sciences, has been shown to help.
Even watching videos of nature positively affects emotions. So if you’re too swamped to make it outside before the sun sets, sit down for a family viewing of Cal Academy’s Biographic Initiative, an on-going collection of photo essays and videos that presents the Academy’s mission of exploring, explaining, and sustaining life on Earth.
Whether bonding with nature or strengthening social ties, connectedness helps strengthen our “ability to deal with difficulties in life, to feel involved in [our] community, to recognize [our] own strengths, and to perceive the life [we’re] living as one that’s meaningful.” Research shows that it’s valuable to spend time developing strategies for staying connected, on our own and with our kids!