The need to belong is as indelible a part of being human as it is for our hearts to continue beating and our lungs to continue circulating oxygen. I use biological analogies here precisely due to how belonging makes physiological changes in our lives. That ache associated with missing a loved one is not simply in our minds, it’s a chemical reaction that permeates our bodies. That sense of safety and wholeness when in a group of like-minded people is not a poetic license, it’s a reduction in stress hormones. From the roaming bands of our evolutionary ancestors on the savannas of Africa to team-building exercises at our places of employment, the biological need to belong has been about expanding the repertoire of our behavior to changing circumstances.

In a recent article in Psychology Today, the author collects from various psychological studies five reasons to choose friends wisely:

1. Strong-willed friends can increase your self-control.

2. Having fewer friends increases the likelihood that you’ll take financial risks.

3. Having too many social media connections increases your stress level.

4. Close friends may be the secret to longevity.

5. Friends greatly influence your choices.

The studies associated with each point are well worth looking through. The results put yet another nail in the coffin of the simplistic notion that we are our own masters, the principle determiners of our behavior. To quote a recent United States president, “I’m the decider.” We like the ease of such statements and beliefs because they reflect the felt feeling, or phenomenology, of what it is to live our own lives. The internalized and oft-repeated mantra of “I am my own boss” allows for the only sense of responsibility that makes any intuitive sense in a world dedicated to increasingly separating us from our shared humanity.

What these studies show is not merely the influence of our friendships, but how our sense of belonging is legitimately conflated with our decision-making abilities. We do not decide the course of our actions from a celestial existence, picking and choosing what variables in our lives will effect us. We are not engineers, we are co-conspirators in the creation of our personal mythologies, what otherwise is referred to as our personal narratives or sense of self.

Since decisions are predicated on that very sense of self and memories provide the substance and boundaries for the construction of current narratives, it is safe to say that the potential of our lives does not lie so much in how exalted our sense of self-empowerment is, but the extent to which the relationships, both interpersonal and inter-environmental, allow for the manifestation of various behavior.

This latter point indicates where the Psychology Today article and much of the cited research misses discussing the why of the influence friendships have on our behavior and the ramifications this has on our simple notions of choice and self-narrative. Directing attention to this lack is less a criticism than an observation of how that very need to believe in our personal empowerment pervades even the academic circles that are supposed to question such assumptions. No less powerful is the fact that psychology, like most other scientific disciplines, has fallen victim to the absurd notion that science is only concerned with what is, not with any concern for ought or issues of morality.

Yet, the futility of this demarcation is indicated merely by looking one step beyond the statements being made. If the quality of one’s friendships is a determinative variable in our ability to make fewer financial mistakes, live longer, increase self-control and shifts other behavior we manifest, then such findings are already making statements about how we should live. Better finances, better choices, fewer mistakes, reduced stress, these are all easily inferred prescriptive notions associated with increasing the quality of our personal lives. A similar situation would result if studies concluded that the cessation of smoking leads to a better quality of life both for the smoker and for those around them. The fact that this is exactly what has happened, resulting in social proscriptions against smoking in enclosed public spaces, indicates that science does discuss issues of morality. Certainly there still exist questions as to which values are of greater concern, personal freedom or public safety, but nobody is going to deny that an increase in quality of life, however objectively determined, is going to be generally found to be a moral imperative.

That issue of personal freedom should, in light of the studies discussed here, give us pause. This is why when determining the parameters for relational and experiential development, RDIIT (Relational Dynamics In Identity Theory) posits the first question of: How do my relationships shape and contribute to my experience(s)? Notice that the first question is not concerned so much with issues of feeling and story. When focused on how to expand relational development, such questions have already come up in the stated identification of a problem in one’s life. Further, one’s feelings and personal story will inevitably be explored through the rubric of that first question anyway. No problem in life exists without connection to personal and experiential relationships. No solution will develop without taking those very relationships into account.

When considering statements and discussions about self-help, it is important to immediately reflect upon how that notion of self is intimately connected with what and with whom life is being shared. The people we have in our lives are not simply pieces on the chessboard of our lives, they are extensions of the board itself, providing an expansion or constriction of how and in what ways we are able to move. Recognizing such can provide a near-infinite source of exploration for just how we and those we look upon are expressing life and, perhaps more importantly, give pause to the ease with which judgment of self and others is made.

 

© David Teachout

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