As a sociologist, I have been interested in what makes up our social needs. Although we have basic psychological and biological needs, our social needs are often neglected in the modern individualistic world.
What are our social needs?
As described in Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, our social needs are of the need for love and belonging. The need for love and belonging consists of a sense of connection, intimacy, trust, and friendship.
When these social needs are fulfilled, we feel a sense of well-being. When these needs are not met, it can cause suffering and despair.
Let’s take a closer look at why our social needs are important and how these needs can be fulfilled.
Why Social Needs are Important
Human beings have social needs that are just as important as our biological need for food.
Just as we may risk death by starvation if we stop eating, those whose social needs are not met may find themselves at risk of a form of extreme emotional pain that leads to thoughts of suicide.
If we want to understand human thriving, the social component is essential.
According to an 80 year long Harvard study that followed a group of individuals since their college years, the quality of our close social relations is the best predictor of health and happiness:
…people’s level of satisfaction with their relationships at age 50 was a better predictor of physical health than their cholesterol levels were.
In a TED Talk on the study, Robert Waldinger emphasizes the dangers of social isolation, stating:
Loneliness kills. It’s as powerful as smoking or alcoholism.
This situation is all the more concerning, given the increasing rates of social isolation in affluent societies, particularly among the aging population.
Modern conveniences allow us to live more independently than ever, but we need to consider the costs to our mental and physical health. We need to consider the health of our communities.
What Happens When Our Social Needs are Unmet?
Let’s do a recap on a definition of social needs. Although Maslow used the words “love and belonging,” I prefer to use a more specific definition.
Here is my sociological definition of our fundamental social need:
It is the need for a perceived sense of personal significance, achieved through a perceived sense of both social belonging and social contribution.
See the resources section below for a list of studies that have formed the empirical foundation for this theory of social needs.
When our social needs are not met, and our sense of personal significance is threatened, we compensate through fight or flight responses in an attempt to restore or escape our lost sense of significance.
Fight responses include displays of superiority and displays of power. Demonstrations of superiority include harnessing status symbols or sabotaging others, and displays of power include aggressive attempts to control or manipulate others. Flight responses include social withdrawal.
Social withdrawal is dangerous because it further diminishes the likelihood of having our social needs met, increasing the risk of suicide.
In Why People Die by Suicide, Thomas Joiner describes how intense emotional pain often comes from a perceived lack of belonging, in addition to feeling like a burden. Thwarted belonging is characterized by the statement, “I am alone.”
Thwarted belonging has two aspects: loneliness as the result of feeling disconnected from others (living alone, single, no children, etc.), and the absence of reciprocal care (family conflict, loss through death, divorce, domestic or child abuse, etc.).
As Jean Vanier states:
“To be lonely is to feel unwanted and unloved, and therefore unlovable. Loneliness is a taste of death.”
Humans are social beings and social isolation is a form of torture. Social isolation and extreme loneliness are different than merely being alone or enjoying time to oneself.
It is a profound sense of disconnection, usually marked by shame and hopelessness about one’s ability to reconnect.
To read more about the experience of isolation contributing to suicide risk, you can check out my article, Inside the Mind of a Suicidal Person.
What Happens When Our Social Needs are Fulfilled?
When our sense of significance is fulfilled, we experience a high degree of subjective well-being, feel a strong sense of identity, belonging, interpersonal connection, social support, and maintain the sense that our efforts are contributing to a cause beyond ourselves.
Classical sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies describes the joy of community when he states that man is “his best and happiest when he is surrounded by his family and his own circle.”
In my research on veterans in transition to civilian life, this had been a common theme. Many experienced a strong sense of community in the military, fulfilling their social needs. As one veteran states:
Bullets don’t discriminate, so watching each other’s back was an unwritten rule. Everything was everyone’s and for that moment in your life it’s true communal living.
It is not coincidental that Maslow’s definition of self-actualization aligns with the Army slogan, “Be all you can be.”
Human beings are inherently social creatures and can only become the best version of ourselves when we are in communion with others. The classic sociologist, Émile Durkheim coined the concept of “homo duplex” to describes our dual nature as both individual and social:
Far from being simple, our inner life has something like a double centre of gravity. On the one hand is our individuality … On the other is everything in us that expresses something other than ourselves. Not only are these two groups of states of consciousness different in their origins and their properties, but there is a true antagonism between them.
“socially connected will be a lifelong need, like food and warmth.”
He goes on to state:
“Living for others [is] such a relief from the impossible task of trying to satisfy oneself.”
We are social beings by nature and find a great deal of purpose in living in service of others.
Our social needs are fundamental when it comes to living a good life.
We need a perceived sense of personal significance, achieved through a perceived sense of both social belonging and social contribution.
If you are interested in reading more about our social needs, you can check out my article, The Need to be Needed.