The Empathic Misanthrope

A grumpy graduate student’s guide to playing nicely with others.

The Importance of Staying Connected with Friends and Family

Why, in today's world, distance doesn't equal disconnect

About a week and a half ago, I packed everything I could into my car and left home for the start of my graduate career. I had no friends or family where I was going and didn't even know my roommate, and I was moving to a part of the country I couldn't be less familiar with. I realized upon acceptance to WSU that a lot of things were going to change, and I figured that I'd have to rebuild my life almost from the ground up: new apartment, new job and coworkers, new classes and peers, new home state, and most importantly, new friends.

Over the past year and a half, I've been working in an undergraduate research lab with a group of amazing people. I got to know some of the most dedicated, ambitious, and driven minds in psychology, and I wouldn't be working toward my doctorate today if I didn't have the support they've provided me with. Leaving them behind was a scary prospect because I've never fit in so well anywhere else, and I worried that I'd be lost and lonely without them.

And though I often take it for granted, I have also been blessed with an extraordinary family. They have been behind me throughout all of my ups and downs in school and in life, and though I often complain that they check in on me too much, the support they've provided me with has been irreplaceable. Leaving home this time would put me farther away from them than I'd ever been before. How would I cope with the distance and the detachment from my social support network?

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Plenty of research has been done on social support and the implications of having too little, and it looks pretty grim.  Studies have shown that:

  • Social support is related to psychological well-being, meaning that the more a person feels he has friends and family who are there for him, the less likely he is to feel depressed and anxious (Turner, 1981).
  • High levels of social support predict more job satisfaction and longer job tenure than low levels of social support (Harris, Winskowski, & Engdahl, 2007).
  • Older adults with a chronic illness who had medium levels of social support had 41% less chance of death than those with low levels of social support, and high levels of social support resulted in a 55% lower chance of death. (Zhang, Norris, Gregg, & Beckles, 2007).

There are countless other publications on the important roles both friends and family can play in our lives, and the general consensus is that social support is very vital for life success. Not having enough is bad news for both your health and your career.

Now that we understand the implications of not having a suitable social support network, managing without one doesn't seem like a sensible choice. Fortunately, we live in an age where connecting with people is easier than it's ever been, and I've been using technology every day to keep in contact with mine. Along the way to Washington, I used my smart phone to post status updates on Facebook, text with my sister and my friends, and talk with the rest of my family about the journey (but not while behind the wheel, of course).  They were happy to know I was doing all right, and I never felt alone at any point during the 1,100-mile trip.

Having a 'Hangout' with Hayden.
Since arriving in Pullman, there's been a constant stream of text messages lighting up my phone every single day,whether I'm sitting in orientation, shopping for furniture, or working in my office. It's so simple to shoot a short message out to a friend, and I've done it to connect on projects, plans, and life matters of all sorts. I've also used Facebook as a less direct method of keeping in contact, just like I did when I was in Los Angeles, and the 'Hangout' video chat feature on Google Plus has allowed me to connect with many friends for both academic purposes and personal ones. Just two days ago, a committee of five of my closest friends helped a sixth make a decision on her acceptance to graduate school, and I had lunch with a friend and his family over video chat only a few hours ago.

Most important to me is the confidence that my social support network provides me with, and technology has made this all possible. Not only has a caring ear been within reach whenever I've needed it but just knowing that it's available has given me the strength to pursue new relationships. My friends and family have not been a crutch that carries me when times get rough; rather, they are a motivating force that pushes me to be myself and enjoy the new adventures that await me in the coming years.

What does your social support network mean to you, and how do you keep in contact with the people you care about when you're many miles away? 

 

 

Alexander Spradlin is a doctoral student in experimental psychology at Washington State University.

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