How much social connection we seek out varies from one person to another, but one thing’s for sure – as humans, we share a fundamental need to interact with and feel connected to others.

“We are social creatures by nature,” says Relationships Australia National Executive Officer, Nick Tebbey. “That feeling of belonging and being connected is really important for our wellbeing.”

Research backs that up, with a 2017 study finding that social connectedness and mental health are not only inextricably linked, it tends to be connectedness that promotes good mental health rather than the other way around. 

“On the other hand,” says Tebbey, “we know that feeling isolated and lonely has a significant impact on our mental and physical health.”

The many faces of connection

What it takes to feel connected can be different for everyone.

“Connection doesn’t look the same for all of us and that’s actually a real positive,” says Tebbey. “It means we’re able to connect – and feel connected – in so many different ways, regardless of our circumstances.”

So, while some kinds of connectedness revolve around physically spending time with like-minded people or doing something unifying – such as being part of a sports team or a book club – others are far less organised.

Woman giving some groceries to her elderly neighbour

“Sometimes all it takes is making the effort to say hello to a neighbour,” says Tebbey. “Even small acts like that foster a genuine sense of connection.”

A study of Relationships Australia’s 2019 Neighbour Day – an annual campaign that encourages people to connect with others in their community – proved exactly that. Those who made the effort to do something neighbourly experienced an increased sense of belonging.

“It doesn’t have to be your next-door neighbour or neighbourhood community either,” explains Tebbey. “Communities exist in many different forms, including those you belong to online.”

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Sometimes you don’t even need anything tangible or actual interaction with others to feel connected.

“A really good example of that was the ‘teddy bear hunt’ that popped up all over the world as a response to COVID-19,” recalls Tebbey. “Simply participating made you feel like you were a part of something and, through that, more connected.”

One explanation for that is the fact that connectedness is actually a subjective thing, which means it relies far less on hard facts, like how large your social circle is, and far more on what you believe, sense or feel.

“This subjectiveness explains why it’s possible to feel connected to a group of strangers, but also why you can sometimes feel lonely or unconnected among a group of people you know,” adds Tebbey.  

Bear in window

Starting a conversation

If you are experiencing loneliness or struggling to feel a real sense of connection, Tebbey suggests speaking up or reaching out.

“Surveys we’ve conducted at Relationships Australia indicate that most of us are quite capable of recognising when we’re feeling isolated or lonely. However, we’re less well equipped to understand why we’re feeling like that, and, importantly, what we can do about it.

“Talking to people you’re close to about how you’re feeling and asking them for help – if you feel comfortable – can be a good starting point. It may even help you identify larger issues that you need to seek support around in order to feel more connected.

“And if you don’t have someone close to talk to or find that it doesn’t help, reach out to a support service like Beyond Blue.”

The Beyond Blue online forums are a great way to connect with people online in a safe and anonymous environment. Discussion topics cover anxiety, depression, suicide, and a range of other life issues. Anyone in Australia can participate in discussions, connect with others, and share their experiences with our community.

If you need assistance visit Beyond Blue’s support services. Our mental health professionals are available 24/7 on: 1300 22 4636. Click here for a web chat (3pm-12am AEST). Alternatively, contact us via email (responses within 24 hours).

For immediate support call Lifeline on 13 11 14 and in an emergency, always call triple zero (000).

Related reading: The rhythm of healthy relationships

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