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Dimensions of Human Connection: People, Pets, and Prayers

Humans draw upon diverse sources for relationship opportunities.

Sociality is at the heart of human existence, a fact that has been acknowledged as far back as Aristotle. Alfred Adler and Rudolf Dreikurs were among the first in the twentieth century to develop theoretical perspectives on the topic, but only in the last half-century has sociality been subject to vigorous theoretical and empirical study. According to Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs, relational and belonging needs are superseded in importance only by survival and safety needs. Harry Harlow's study of infant rhesus monkeys did not deny the importance of survival needs (i.e, food), but showed that social contact is just as important for healthy growth and development. Prompted by Konrad Lorenz's studies of imprinting and the plight of infants and young children in Britain's post-World War II orphanages, John Bowlby (1973) showed that in humans, too, maternal-child attachment bonds are essential for healthy growth and development. Across the lifespan, affiliative and attachment bonds have clear survival and reproductive advantages that may help explain why the motivation to form and maintain close social bonds is as potent as the drive to satisfy hunger or thirst. Just as hunger and thirst motivate the search for food and water, the pain of unmet social needs (i.e., felt social isolation) motivates a search for social reconnection. The desire for connection is so irrepressible that people imagine relationships with important social others, or indulge in "social snacks" (e.g., photos of loved ones) and surrogates (e.g., parasocial attachments to television characters).

In earlier work, Louise Hawkley and I have found that mental representations of feelings of social connectedness are multi-faceted. Quantitative analyses have revealed three dimensions along which people feel socially connected, and this structure was evident in young as well as middle-age adults and was the same across ethnicities. The first dimension, which we termed Intimate Connectedness, reflects satisfaction of the social self at a deeply personal level, and was uniquely associated with marital status. Relational Connectedness reflects satisfaction of close friendship needs and was uniquely associated with frequency of contact with close friends and relatives. Collective Connectedness reflects satisfaction of the need to belong to a meaningful group and was uniquely associated with number of memberships in voluntary groups. These findings represented the first installment in our research on the ways people connect with others.

We recently explored the phenomenon that people form and maintain social connections with non-human beings. Pets and religious entities, for instance, are commonly considered sources of security and belonging. Religious deities are potent attachment figures for many individuals, and the quality of the relationship with God appears particularly important in satisfying connection needs. Using data from the General Social Survey, others have found that closeness in a "divine relationship" is associated with significantly greater global happiness, life satisfaction, and even marital happiness. Church attendance was also associated with global and marital happiness, but a close divine relationship continued to predict higher scores on each of the well-being measures when church attendance was held constant. In addition, among married individuals, a close divine relationship buffered the negative effect on marital satisfaction of having few social interactions outside of the marriage, implying that divine relationships compensate for shortcomings in one's social relationships. On the other hand, married and unmarried individuals did not differ in the strength of the observed association between a close relationship to God and overall well-being, suggesting that divine relationships may not substitute but can supplement existing social relationships to enhance life satisfaction. Lending further support to this conjecture was the finding that a close relationship with God (i.e., a secure attachment) is associated with less loneliness, even when the social support of close others is held constant. In addition, strengthening of one's religious beliefs, particularly beliefs in a close, personal God, has been shown to ease the burden of bereavement, divorce, and singlehood.

Just as the quality of interpersonal relationships influences the degree of felt belonging or loneliness, the quality of the human-pet relationship appears to moderate the experience of security and belonging afforded pet owners. For example, simply owning a pet did not predict subjective well-being in a sample of elderly women, but the degree to which these women were attached to their pets was associated with their reported happiness. Similarly, pet attachment, but not pet ownership, was negatively associated with depressive symptoms in a large national sample of older adults.

A number of studies, including some of our own, have shown that anthropomorphism of, and attachment to, a pet is greater in individuals who lack supportive interpersonal relationships. In a study of older adult pet owners, pet attachment bonds were stronger among those with higher feelings of loneliness and stress, and lonely individuals who lacked a close human friend formed the strongest pet attachments. In a study of cat owners, attachment to a pet cat was greater among those with fewer people in the household, fewer social support providers, and poorer perceived quality of social support provision. Among women, the reported companionship and support provided by a cat was greater among childless women than among women who were pregnant or already had children. In a large survey of pet owners and non-owners, attachment to a pet was greater among childless couples than parents, and greater among never-married, divorced, widowed, and re-married individuals than those in a first marriage. These studies suggest that pets supplement or substitute for human connections to satisfy connection needs. In support of a substitution role for pets, attachment to a pet was associated with less depression among bereaved individuals, but only among those with few supportive confidants.

The versatility with which humans access diverse sources of relationship opportunities suggests that relationship satisfaction is more than just satisfaction with human connections but involves an overall sense of connectedness that encompasses a wide array of relationship domains. It is in our nature to want to be close to and valued by others consistently over time. Given the importance of this aspect of our being, one might weigh this factor in the many rational decisions we make on a daily basis that affects our life trajectories. This knowledge might also affect how we communicate with one another. Criticism is more easily heard when couched within a positive context that signals the flaws are not fatal to the relationship, but rather are simply correctable glitches in an otherwise healthy and mutually beneficial relationship.