Let's face it: Social interactions are important. We need to interact with other people to get things done. You need to talk to the grocery store clerk to get the food you need. You need to talk with your boss in order to get work completed. And you need to talk with police officers and firefighters to get help you need.
Social interactions have been essential throughout human development. Many thousands of years ago there was a “cognitive revolution” in human development in which humans developed a strong need to communicate with other humans on a more intense level than had previously been the case. Essentially, this need for social interactions arose out of our desire and need to share more detailed understanding of the world and things that needed to be done with other humans. There were similar changes in development of other animal species but with humans the focus was on communicating more detailed material and experiences.
Other animal species also emphasize inter-individual communication. This communication is often different from human communication but carries with it the same basic benefits. Nonhuman animals communicate with each other to share experiences and address needs. It would be difficult to overemphasize the importance of inter-individual communication for humans and non-human animal development. Much of how all animals have developed over the years have been to allow them to interact more effectively with other members of their species.
But the importance of social interactions has led to an overemphasis, at least when it comes to humans, on the quality and intensity of those social relationships. We need to interact with each other but it is not necessary that these relationships reach anything more than a basic level of connectedness. It is nice to have strong social relationships but it is not necessary for our survival or even our happiness. Simply put, it is not necessary for humans to have friends.
I bring this up because I have worked with a number of individuals over the years who have suffered because of their lack of ability to make or keep friends. These often are individuals who have autism or some other condition or personality trait that leads them to have difficulties with social relationships. But this also may be a problem that comes up just because a person is not the type of individual who makes or keeps friends easily or may have difficulties with friendships because of isolated location or frequent moves.
What is often very sad about these situations is to see how negative people can get about themselves when they do not have friends. They may very well be able to function in terms of getting things done that they need done; they also may be able to contribute quite a lot to their communities. But when people cannot make friends, they often think very negatively about themselves, even if they have reason to be very positive about other aspects of their lives.
In my opinion, the emphasis that people put on friendships and intense social relationships comes about because humans are often described as “social animals." There is an expectation that because we are animals for whom social relationships are important, then it must equally follow that the more serious the social relationship, the better.
But in a book reviewing comparative social psychology research, Terry Maple and I (2016) found considerable evidence that being a “social animal” does not require emotionally intimate relationships like “friendships." Having friends is nice and can be beneficial—but it is not necessary for survival in social environments. Social isolation is detrimental—but there is a huge gap between an individual being “socially isolated” and having “friendships." You can gain all the benefits associated with social relationships just by having the ability to interact with other people. It is not necessary—although it might be nice—that any of those relationships meet the criteria of being “friendships."
In a study of 4,382 typically developed adults, Demir and Davidson (2013) found that friendships are deemed important for happiness—but even more important are having basic needs met and feeling competent that one could meet their own needs. “Basic need satisfaction” and “competence satisfaction” are much more important for determining happiness than are number of friends or even quality of friendships. People tend to be happier if they feel they are competent in doing what they need to do and that they are successfully meeting their basic needs. Helping individuals find a path to feeling this way—regardless of whether they meet others' criteria for a “successful” social life—can be one very effective way of helping them feel less lonely and more positive about themselves and their lives.
We all need to be able to interact with other people at some point. Social interactions are important both for getting things that we need and for accomplishing important tasks. In this way, we are like all animal species, who all need to interact with others to get things done. But once those tasks are accomplished, it is not essential that the social relationships move beyond that point. Continuing on with relationships might be nice and bring about positive feelings. But those relationships are not necessarily more important than being comfortable being alone.
Some people do well spending lots of time with other people; some people do better spending time by themselves. Some people might also find themselves in situations where they have to be comfortable interacting with other people because they around other people so often. And then some people often find themselves in situations where they are mostly by themselves. Neither situation is necessarily better than the other.
We all need to find the best ways for us to be comfortable with (and effective at) interacting with other people. But we also all need to find the best ways of being comfortable being by ourselves and doing things on our own. Handling being alone is as important as handling being with other people.
And remember: Being alone does not have to mean being lonely.
Demir, M., & Davidson, I. (2013). Toward a better understanding of the relationship between friendship and happiness: Perceived responses to capitalization attempts, feelings of mattering, and satisfaction of basic psychological needs in same-sex best friendships as predictors of happiness. Journal of Happiness Studies, 14(2), 525-550.
Marston, D. & Maple, T. (2016). Comparative Psychology for Clinical Psychologists and Therapists. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.