The Feeling’s Mutual: Energize Social Support through Give & Take

I have long romanticized living in a commune where people help each other freely, for the good of all. After living in an intentional community, I know that communal life is not all peace, love, and happiness. Nevertheless, I’m still drawn to the ideal. Especially when I think of all the people who are grappling with more serious life challenge. Those who could use more social support. If you too would like to nudge your network into being more mutually supportive, read on.

wellbeing tip 91: imagine mutual social support (two people with super hero shadows)

Tip #91: Imagine Mutual Support

Mutual support improves lives, strengthens bonds, & elevates common good. For genuine mutuality, we reimagine ourselves as individuals-in-relation, with mutual respect & influence, helping each other grow in healthy ways.

Mutuality can be symmetric or asymmetric–with unequal power, status, ability or resources (such as parent/child or teacher/student), but also with respect and consideration (rather than domination). Note that mutuality does not necessarily come naturally. If we want our relationships to result in social support and collective wellbeing, then we have to work at it.

wellbeing tip 92: seek social support for resiliency (slinky on orange background)

Tip #92: Seek Support for Resiliency

The tangible benefits of social support are easy to see. Yet it’s less clear why support makes us feel better, both physically and emotionally. Just in the last decade, scientists have begun teasing out how social support influences health as well as responses to stress. As resiliency researcher Elliot Friedman says:

The availability of social support in all its forms—instrumental support, emotional support, support with how you think about things—they all matter and help us in facing challenge.  

After this last year, we’re all likely familiar with challenges and how social support helps to face them. Especially since we haven’t been able to give or get our usual social support thanks to the global pandemic. We’ve all had to dig deep and get creative to support each other. Still, our collective mental health is in serious trouble. To bounce back, we have to be honest about when we need support, seek it, & accept it.

wellbeing tip 93: bond through reciprocity (gift in two hands)

Tip #93: Bond through Reciprocity

As anthropologist, I’m a big fan of reciprocity. Psych research on social support only covers benefits for health & resiliency. But anthropologists explain how reciprocity works to build/maintain social bonds that lead to support in the first place.

Reciprocity refers to the continuing sequence of giving and receiving tangible objects and services that are meant to create, maintain, or expand social networks over time. Reciprocity may be general, where the return is not immediate (like birthday gifts). Or it may be balanced, where immediate return is expected (like Christmas gifts). Different social situations have varying rules for reciprocity, but all carry an obligation for fair exchange. Reciprocity thus functions as a binding mechanism that helps to hold society together. 

wellbeing tip 94: trust in our social contract (red parachute)

Tip #94: Trust in Our Social Contract

Reciprocity is particularly important to spread social support in communities of unrelated individuals with weak emotional ties. Research from Stanford psychologists suggests that for both the giver and receiver to benefit from social support, the giver must emotionally invest. If not, the act of providing support becomes a burden. But the norms of reciprocity suggest otherwise. 

We provide tangible support because it is our social obligation and because what goes around comes around. Someday when we need it most, we will want to be on the receiving end. This sort of exchange of support does not require the close emotional connection of family and friends. But it does require trust that others will uphold the social contract. 

That trust is built over time. Starting with small acts of reciprocity (like exchanging holiday cards) lays the foundation of mutual trust that can be drawn upon when more significant support is needed. 

wellbeing tip 95: be the first to give (number one on red track)

Tip #95: Be the First to Give

Reciprocity has to start somewhere, so why not be the first to give? No gift is too small: a holiday card, the proverbial cup of sugar, overflow from the garden or baking…. My favorite offering is mutually beneficial: hand-me-downs. With only one child and a very small house, we need to pass things on. Outgrown toys (like a big box of plastic dinosaurs) find new homes with neighborhood kids. Clothes go to a friend’s daughter who is one year younger. And books join the little lending “library” at the end of our street.

Exchanging “gifts” in this way is incredibly easy, yet it results in a surprisingly big boost in wellbeing.  It’s nice to have mutual practical, social & emotional benefits all rolled into one small action.

wellbeing tip 96: tune in to others' needs (yellow retro radio)

Tip #96: Tune in to Others’ Needs

The tricky part of giving social support is that people are often reticent to ask for help. But don’t let that stop you. I have found that it’s much easier to build mutual support if I take the initiative to figure out what others need and then offer it.

Our neighborhood is the most obvious place to start. Several older neighbors are starting to slow down, and they never say no to yard work. My daughter actually enjoys this: she finds satisfaction in weeding, she likes to chat with adults, and she often comes home with a little treasure, like a succulent cutting or a pretty rock. But there are so many smaller acts that take no time, like putting away trash bins, collecting the mail, or carrying in the groceries. The trick is to be out an about, talking to neighbors and paying attention. The result? A neighborhood where people care for each other. 

Note that these are not “random acts of kindness” but purposeful ones that aim to lay the groundwork for a circle of support. In the process of giving, I get good feelings, a lesson for my daughter, and perhaps a little less awkwardness when I inevitably need help myself. 

wellbeing tip 97: sign up for social support (hands on computer keyboard)

Tip #97: Sign up for Support

When big life events happen, caring, organized friends or community groups may set up a system for social support & invite others to contribute.

When our daughter was born, we lived far away from family who might lighten the new-baby workload. Luckily, we could turn to the Laguna Beach Parents Club. They ran a range of programs like age-based play groups and lectures, but the real lifesaver was a meal-delivery system, in which existing members signed up to bring dinner to new parents.

In our sleep-deprived state, we were so thankful for those homemade meals, complete with a bottle of wine and a thoughtful note of congratulations. Besides the relief of not having to cook, we felt truly cared for. So of course when we got into the groove with our own baby, we signed up to return the favor. Bonus: It gave us a happy rush to help others feel as good as we did on the receiving end.

In the subsequent years, we discovered another organization whose sole purpose is to organize meal giving around significant life events: Meal Train. My family has participated in two Meal Trains—one after a surgery and one, a death—and concluded that it’s a brilliant way to show you care without intruding on what can be private times.

wellbeing tip 98: refine the art of asking (iron "ask" sign on building)

Tip #98: Refine the Art of Asking

When I watched Amanda Palmer’s TED Talk  Art of Asking, I felt moved. The musician talked about her college “job” as a street performer: an all-white living statue she called the 8-foot Bride who offered a flower and intense eye contact to anyone who would accept it—her ask and thanks for spare change in a hat. 

As her band, the Dresden Dolls, started to take off, Palmer wanted to recreate the connection that occurs at the intersection of giving and receiving. So she continued to ask for anything the band needed and continuously delighted in the generosity of others. Palmer maintains that we should not hesitate to ask because providing an opportunity to help is a gift to others.

An NPR review of Palmer’s book The Art of Asking suggests that this attitude is perhaps a bit naïve. Analisa Quinn observes: 

In our society, certain kinds of people are allowed to ask for things, and certain kinds of people are not. [Palmer] writes as though the biggest obstacle to getting the help you need is a reluctance to ask — not, say, ingrained social structures having to do with race and class. Who is allowed to ask for help? Who is heard when they ask for help? Whom do people want to help? 

We would do well to keep in mind Quinn’s point about the privilege of asking and, by extension, how an individual’s dignity might get dinged by having to ask. Perhaps finding that balance is the real Art of Asking. 

wellbeing tip 99: be appreciative (red tulips on aqua background)

Tip #99: Be Appreciative

Besides asking for social support, we might consider how being thankful 🙏 for it further boosts wellbeing. In fact, gratitude is a hot topic in the happiness literature these days.

Numerous studies, like the one by psychologists Joel Wong and Joshua Brown at Indiana University, indicate that writing gratitude letters boosts wellbeing for both healthy, well-adjusted individuals and those struggling with mental health concerns. Wong and Brown took a step further to understand how gratitude works to change our mental disposition: the gratitude letters examined in the study employed fewer negative emotion words (and more positive ones) as well as more “we” words (first- person plural) as compared to the control group’s journal entries exploring negative experiences. Thus writing gratitude letters “unshackles us from toxic emotions.”

Surprisingly (or not), these researchers say that gratitude helps even if it’s not shared—only 23% of their research participants sent their gratitude letters but still felt the benefits. That’s good motivation to keep a journal and be appreciative daily.

wellbeing tip 100: write thank you notes (letter writing supplies)

Tip #100: Write Thank You Notes

Though research suggests that we feel the benefits of expressing gratitude without actually expressing it to another person, I’m not convinced. By not sharing gratitude, the letter writers deprive themselves from experiencing the full benefits–benefits that come from strengthening social bonds.

There’s a reason for the truism, Everyone likes to be appreciated. It’s hard to maintain the motivation to give when you don’t feel appreciated – even to one’s own children (of course we keep giving in that case because it’s our job, but it’s certainly one of the top ten complaints parents make!). So it’s possible that those who do not express gratitude risk losing their support.

In terms of our own wellbeing, positive psychology founder Martin Seligman’s exercise of hand delivering a gratitude letter results in the biggest boost in happiness scores, with the benefits lasting for a whole month. So by all means, write out your thanks, but be sure to share it. 

Next Week…

We’ll explore the idea of a “commons” a form of mutual social support at the community level.


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