Feeling Lonely? Weak Social Ties Offer Surprising Benefits
Friendly connections with strangers can increase life satisfaction.
Posted December 15, 2022 | Reviewed by Jessica Schrader
- Weak ties provide important benefits to well-being.
- A diversity of both weak and strong connections with others is important for life satisfaction.
- Friendly strangers and acquaintances can boost our mood and provide a sense of community.
A client, who I’ll call Claire, lived alone for many years after a divorce. Her family lived out of state, and she described feeling quite lonely, especially during the holidays. I asked her what helped to cheer her up. “I love going to the library every week. My favorite librarian, Maria, chats with me about great historical fiction or favorite cozy mysteries. I always leave feeling a warm connection with her.”
When I shop for groceries each week, I prefer the checkout line with Judy, a cashier I’ve chatted with for years. I watched her lose over 100 pounds and keep it off over many years. We commiserated over body aches and wished each other happy holidays. Our shared kindness and familiarity offer a sense of community and connection.
Another client, who I’ll call Sherry, gets great joy from her Sundays at a local breakfast diner. “The manager there is so nice to me. My favorite waitress calls me 'sweety' and brings me extra whipped cream for my pancakes. I feel so uplifted each week. It’s my church,” she said.
Harvard researcher Hanne Collins calls these types of relationships “weak social ties.” She studied all types of relationships that occur around the world. She found weak social ties, like the one I experience with Judy, prove just as important as strong ties to our life satisfaction (Collins et al., 2022).
Researchers have long known that a community of supportive relationships improves the quality of life and can even help us better survive illness and recover from surgeries. Collins discovered something new. She learned that a rich diversity of weak and strong ties provides more significant benefits to well-being (Hale et al., 2005). Collins’ research revealed that regularly interacting with a wide variety of social ties, both weak and strong, fortifies our satisfaction in life.
We can feel quite shaken, sad, and lonely after the loss of a loved one. At times we can only feel the empty void they left behind. Yet, when ready, our spirits can lift from the friendly hello from a neighbor, the cheerful greeting from a local barista, or the comfort of our favorite diner waiter. Collins suggests that we remain open to the meaning of both strong and weak ties for the comfort, connection, and community they provide.
If you’re experiencing loss and loneliness right now, you might find some relief by:
- Kindness toward strangers. I still remember the man who cheered me up years ago when I worked in customer service. A rude customer right before him shook me up. He noticed my distress and put me at ease with kindness. Your act of kindness might live on in the memory of a stranger for decades.
- Reach out to the people you love. Everyone needs to feel significant to someone. You could be that person for someone in your circle of connection. No matter how lonely you feel, there is someone out there who’s going through something worse than you. You might make their day.
- Say yes to invitations from acquaintances. When lonely, we tend to avoid social engagements to avoid the imagined embarrassment of being the only single person or the only sad person. Socializing with people we don’t know well can feel awkward. Saying yes, despite the awkwardness, offers you an opportunity to feel less lonely. If you want people to move closer to you, move closer to them.
Collins’ research found that the evenness of our connections with both strong and weak ties provided the maximum benefit for life satisfaction. So don’t overlook the neighbor walking their aging dog, that new co-worker in the coffee room, or the fitness trainer at the gym. Notice your big, wide world of loose social ties.
I invite you to inventory the people who inspire, cheer, serve, support, comfort, educate, motivate, and entertain you. Even the people we meet only once can leave a lasting impression. I remember discussing the novel Anna Karenina on an airplane with a wise woman who was an economics professor; meaningful moments of joy with street musicians and performers; great book recommendations from strangers in bookstores; and even a shared impromptu dance with a cop directing traffic. All those connections matter. And so do you.
Collins, Hanne K., Serena F. Hagerty, Jordi Quoidbach, Michael I. Norton, and Alison Wood Brooks. "Relational Diversity in Social Portfolios Predicts Well-Being." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 119, no. 43 (October 17, 2022).
Hale CJ, Hannum JW, Espelage DL. Social support and physical health: the importance of belonging. J Am Coll Health. 2005 May-Jun;53(6):276-84. doi: 10.3200/JACH.53.6.276-284. PMID: 15900991.