Tools for Cultivating Supportive Friendships & Relationships:
For this toolbox I’d like to put forward a little bit of theory about how we are supported by relationships — that is, to offer an overall look at what we receive from our relationships with others.
The five benefits of relationships. Studies show that social support can be broken down into several families of benefits:
- Material support: Others can help us in concrete ways. If I’ve broken my leg, I will be glad if somebody will do my shopping for me. If I have to move, I will be happy to have my friends help me transport the boxes.
- Informational support: Others can advise us, give us useful infor- mation, and play the role of human search engines — as intelligent as Google but alive and compassionate — and they won’t resell our personal information afterward.
- Emotional support: Others are the source of positive emotions; they give us affection, love, friendship, trust, admiration.
- The support of esteem. Others can remind us of our value and good qualities, tell us what they like about us, and sustain our self-esteem at moments of uncertainty.
- The inspiration of their example: This is more difficult to evaluate scientifically, but it’s quite real, as we have indicated.
The four varieties of relationships. Another important point is that it is helpful to cultivate varied social relationships, just as it is important to have a varied diet. There are four families of relationships, distributed in four concentric circles:
- Our intimates: the people we live with, whom we touch and embrace practically every day. This means mostly our family and best friends.
- Our close relations: our friends and colleagues, people with whom we regularly have close and regular exchanges.
- Our acquaintances: the whole network of people with whom we have a connection, even occasional, and who we keep track of and who keep track of us.
- Unknowns: those who we might also have relationships with, depending on our character. This includes people we might speak to on the street, on public transport, in stores. They can also be sources of help or information for us, as we can for them.
Specialists in social relations remind us that it is important to draw sup- port from these four circles — not only from our intimate and close relations—and to sustain our connections with these four relational spheres by giving and receiving help, information, support, eye contact, advice, and smiles. Because the idea is not only to receive but also to give, by speaking to unknowns and maintaining warm relations with our acquaintances, neighbors, and shopkeepers, we do ourselves good. And we embellish the world, improve it, and make it more human!
The importance of social connection. We should choose to live in an environment where people are warm, altruistic, and compassionate. If this isn’t the case in all areas of our living space, we should progressively try to establish these values or, if it’s possible, we should leave the toxic environment.
In this connection, I like to cite the case of a community on the Japanese island of Okinawa, which claims to have one of the world’s highest concentrations of people aged a hundred or over. It appears that the main factor in this exceptional longevity is not the climate or the food, but the power of this community, where people maintain particularly rich social relationships. From cradle to grave, they relate very closely with one another. The elderly people in particular get together several times a week to sing, dance, and have a good time. Almost every day they go to schools to greet the children (whether they have familial links with them or not) at the end of the school day. The elders take the children in their arms and give them treats.
Draw inspiration from the righteous, from people who, in our eyes, embody the values of impartiality, tolerance, compassion, love, and kindness. In these times of the migratory crisis, I think of all those who have taken great risks, and I remember those who protected Jewish people during the Nazi persecutions of World War II, particularly those who hid Jews in their homes. These people have since come to be called “The Righteous.” The only common point that emerges from their many accounts is a view of others based on recognition of their common human- ity. All human beings deserved to be treated with kindness. Where we saw a stranger, they saw a human being.
Meditate on altruistic love. Studies in psychology have shown that meditating on altruistic love increases people’s feelings of belonging to a community; it enhances the quality of social connections and compassionate attitudes toward unknown people, while at the same reduc- ing discrimination toward particular groups, like people of color, homeless people, and immigrants.
Draw inspiration from friends in the good and spiritual masters. I recommend that everyone see a historical documentary made in India by Arnaud Desjardins at the end of the 1960s, in which we are shown the most respected of the Tibetan masters who took refuge on the Indian slopes of the Himalayas following the Chinese invasion of their country. The film is called The Message of the Tibetans.
The audacity to live. Existing, opening oneself to the other, is running a risk. It means dropping one’s armor, one’s protective coverings, and opening one’s eyes and daring to give oneself to the other and to the entire world. There’s no way you can invest in a relationship, so throw out your logic of profit and loss! What if we were to embark on our day without any idea of gain or of using our fellow human beings? What if we stayed attentive to all the women and men it is given to us to encoun- ter on that day, looking to find among them masters in being human?
Identify our profound aspirations. Helping others can often amount to imposing a view of the world on them without really paying any attention to what they really want in their hearts. A man bought an elephant without giving any thought in advance to how he was going to feed it. At a loss, he was obliged to turn for help to those around him, and what he got from them was, “You never should have bought such a big animal!” What does it mean to help others? Does it mean committing completely to being there for them? Does it mean going all the way with them?
Authentic compassion. A will to power might enter into our move- ment toward the other—a thirst for recognition, a twisted attempt to redeem ourselves. Daring a true encounter means quitting the sphere of your neurosis and walking the path of freedom together. There’s no more “me,” no more “you,” but a coalescent “us,” a primordial solidarity.
Coming out of the bunker. As a result of having been burned in our relationship with another, the temptation is great to put on armor, to completely shut ourselves up in a bunker-like fortress, even to the point of suffocation. Don’t our passions, our griefs, our loves, and the fierce- ness of our desire remind us that we are essentially turned toward the other, in perpetual communication? Is there a way to live the thousand and one contacts of daily life without our ego appropriating them?
This is excerpted from the newest book from Matthieu Ricard, Christophe André, and Alexandre Jollien, Freedom For All Of Us: A Monk, A Philosopher, and a Psychiatrist on Finding Inner Freedom.
Matthieu Ricard is a Buddhist monk, a photographer, and a molecular geneticist who has served as an interpreter for the Dalai Lama.
Christophe André is a psychiatrist and one of the primary French specialists in the psychology of emotions and feelings.