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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.
If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health issues, you can check out my resource page for suggestions on how to find help.
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.
As Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect:
“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.
A good article! I would disagree however that the “fight” aspect you describe would always result in competitive type behaviors. I think at such times becoming more proactive socially in positive ways, contributing to efforts in social milieus and settings working with others can fulfil the same needs.
I agree with your disagreement that the “fight” aspect is necessary not pro-social. Although I think one has the capacity to regain a sense of pro-social contribution without necessarily resorting individualistic aggression, contribution may also occur in the form of aggressive group reaction if the group one is contributing to has the goal of aggressive domination after a perceived injustice.
Possibly we are using the wrong word when we apply it to an individual. The classic cliche fight or flight. The fight maybe a survival attempt which manifests itself in different ways. The fight may be silent and carried internally. That is the case for many people. The fight as we know it might be verbal but really it can be frustration and lack of being accepted that causes a “fight” within themselves. Outsiders observations may be of various concerns. Especially the flight aspect of the end result of a painful experience. I do agree with the flight part of the cliche. From childhood on they may have relied on this to survive and we need to show them that they are special in someone’s eyes and worth spending time with. This may not be the whole answer but in my humble opinion it may be the best you can give and the best they can give. Let us help them love themselves and they will love us for showing them that they are special. We are all special in someone’s eyes…what is the difference in everyone’s needs? We are all much the same….no categorizations, no labels.
“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. ”
~ This has been my experience in life.
The list of sources is a nice touch 🙂
Yeah, the model looks a little thin right now. I plan to show how it builds on the literature in the future.
Hey Steve, I like where you’re going with this, but I rarely find thinkers who want to go far enough.
I agree that our fundamental need is a perceived sense of personal significance. However, although significance is predominately achieved through social belonging and social contribution, those are not the only means. They’re just the only means most people are familiar with, because the alternative freaks them out and few try it.
However, neither is it esoteric nor unknown. In fact, we’re all more or less acquainted with it, unless we’ve never held our ground when misunderstood or believed in a dream or idea when no one else saw or supported it: Self-validation. The problem is that when social censure or ridicule rises to sufficient levels, we usually capitulate and let go of what we at one point were sure was true, even our sense of self-worth.
It is possible, though, to self-validate despite severe opposition, censure, or ridicule. We have plenty of examples of it. Unfortunately we hold these people as exceptional, as if almost super-human — saints and heroes. Sadly, that’s just a cop-out. We all have that capacity. As more of us exercise it, the presumption that we’re ultimately dependent on social support will become less of a foregone conclusion-cum-compulsion, and more of a welcome if I can get it, but I can handle it if I don’t kind of option. That will mark the beginning of all kinds of lights going on and, ultimately, break the death grips that hold so many in various captive and abusive situations.
Self-validation should be something that all parents teach their children how to transition to. Few parents even know what it is, thinking that throwing them into the deep end of adulthood and encouraging, “I know you’ll swim just fine!” is what teaching “independence” is all about. Self-validation is the antidote to entrapment, the way of escape from cycles of abuse, and the inoculation against undue influence and cultic/fundamentalistic mindsets.
We need to stop assuming that we are little more than social validation junkies.
Thank you for this! It is something I’ve struggled to reconcile. Particularly Kierkegaard’s perspective on it, and his example of Abraham from the old testament. The way I can reconcile it now would be stating that it’s not one or the other, but both. In the case of these rare individuals who radically act against the social grain, I would say that their sense of contribution is in the fact that they are contributing to potential better future society by going against a perceived injustice. In terms of external validation, I wouldn’t say it’s necessary to feel a sense of significance, even if ones actions happen to be in accordance with a social group.
I love this phrase. Self validation is so important to children as well as adults. Many adults as children never felt like they were validated whether it was from others or what they perceived about themselves. For kids it just sends a message that they are not worth anything and they grab onto whatever they can that gives them a sense of worth and fitting in. How many kids feel this, have felt this or just learned to live with it to get through? Every kid I see that way I /my heart reaches out to. It can lead into their adult life and most of the time it does. In adulthood in may mean they grab for anything they can get to prove themselves or be admired. It is just an endless cycle. I can relate to this story so well in my life and what I have seen and felt. So if you get a chance love a kid, adolescent or make a friend of an adult that just needs to know that they count!
Yes, a lot of dysfunctional “adult” behavior (which is just childish behavior dressed up to appear otherwise) seems to be little more than attempts to suck validation from others that we didn’t get as kids. It’s a kind of addiction, which is why we never seem to come to an end of it.
I sometimes ask people when the last time they spent a 24-hour or longer stretch without interacting with another human being. I get all kinds of reactions, everything from “that does not compute” looks to “Why the hell would I want to do that?”
Not only are we addicted to others for things we ought to give ourselves, we’re plumb scared to death of our own company. Many/most of us really don’t like ourselves much; otherwise we’d enjoy hanging out with ourselves more. Instead we vilify it as “antisocial”, lol. Yeah, right — if we’re not addicted like most people, there’s something wrong with us? Nah. 🙂
I agree. The majority is not me at all. I do enjoy quiet time. I do enjoy doing things on my own. I don’t mind being alone. However, this sometimes brings me to the awareness that I am. Good and not can evolve from this but I rely on me. It is not a matter of trust for most I come in contact with. It’s a matter of not being true to myself in many occasions that I can just choose to not be in the company of.
I am sure I am OCD but that’s not all bad. I like quiet time and always have b/c these times also give me moments of inspiration. Great inspiration. I make sure that I do take time to be with myself , like a friend it is my choice whom I wish to be with and at those times it is me. I have learned I came into this world naked and w/o anything and that is how I will leave so the part of living in between is filler that I should fill with wonderful people. The rest is fun enterprising and self indulgent which is good filler too, but it’s just part of the sandwich. Thank you for your thoughts. I love thinking!
I’d also add that self-validation is a learned skill. 🙂
You’re very welcome! I agree, it’s both-and. They work together. Ultimately we can’t live exclusively by either one. Extreme social dependence occludes our identities and selves. Extreme self-dependence is almost like a form of cynical protest and certainly doesn’t lead to either individual or collective well-being. I also agree that aligning oneself to our social group doesn’t necessarily result in a sense of significance. After all, cult members are nothing if not aligned to their groups, but they get to that uber-reliant state through abnegation of self, not recognition of it. I think that people who self-validate in constructive ways have the sense that they are aligning with the authentic selves, the true desires and aspirations, of their fellows who for various reasons have lost grip on their dignity and significance as individuals. So, rather than standing against others they feel that they are standing for them.
It’s been a long time since I read Kierkegaard, probably my all-time favorite philosopher given what I’ve read. What was his view on it? I remember him writing about Abraham, so I must have read it, but can’t recall.
I enjoyed the “collaboration” in this thread. It highlights Validation as a prism for understandIng our unique Identity. Self Is a complex concept , and seeing Self comprised of three vectors: Seld-in-Solitude,Self-in-Others, and Self-in -Spirit, helps me understand my Identity better. I feel, then, Validation coming from each of these three sources: Internally , my Self- in- Solitude, Socially, my Self- in- Others, and Larger than Life, Self-in-Spirit. The first two were nicely discussed in the thread; I would just highlight Spirit as being an important Validator for many of us. What defines our unique “Net Vector” identity is how we prioritize these three vectors in our Validation quest.
Nice observations! I think I’ve collapsed self-in-spirit into self-in-solitude and self-in-others because, aside from dogmas that as far as I can tell were either epiphanic products of self-in-solitude or self-in-others — or just plain made up out of thin air — my only real access to self-in-spirit is via self-in-solitude and self-in-others. So Occam would be proud of me for paring down one more entity beyond necessity! 🙂
I dislike when someone says, “She’s a ‘people person'” because we all are. It’s naturally natural. Thanks.
Just finished reading your Dissertation. Very insightful, truly. Fired up parts of my brain too long dormant
I think this is a great post, Steve. You have a really interesting take and definitely a hugely thought provoking piece.
Yes Steve a lot of this makes good sense. Although Maslow`s theory is not scientific in terms of how representative his sample was and there are other issues with his research it is still one of the best models of motivation we have. In my experience in coaching and mental health work it is helpful to use. The part of the theory I like the best is his less well known theory of self actualization which I quote Maslow “The desire for self-fulfilment, namely the tendency for him [the individual] to become actualized in what he is potentially.” In my psychology degree days I didn`t understand the meaning of it. I do now. I always wrote in different ways but I always liked to write. I chose what I thought was more meaningful work and became involved in mental health and learning disability, sometimes very stressful work.
In the past year I have written a novel and it has been one of the best things I`ve ever done and has brought me so much satisfaction and it`s been very rewarding. My point is my potential is to write. I went down many paths of employment but none has satisfied me like producing a novel and I have included so much experiences and learning from my work in my book. I am fulfilling my potential to write, what I feel was always my purpose in life and it has made me happy. So I think everyone is born with a purpose to fulfil, whatever that purpose is. It can be anything at all it doesn`t have to be a job. Then the person will feel satisfied with their life. A person`s life then becomes a little easier and less of a struggle because they enjoy what they are doing with most of their time. They look forward to the next day ahead of them and enjoy the day they are experiencing. I wish that everyone finds their true purpose.