Connecting: Social Connections in a Fragmented World

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Seeking connections with others is an innate human drive, and having a strong social network of friends and loved ones has clear health benefits. But in a fragmented world, is ‘connectedness’ too much to hope for?

I met a politician recently in the course of some work we were both involved in. We were sharing a lift which was creaking slowly from floor to floor, and I recognised him from the television news. As one does in these slightly awkward situations, we exchanged a few pleasantries — ‘Isn’t it cold for August?’, ‘Did you manage to find parking?’, ‘Do you live locally?’. I mentioned the name of the town where I live; ‘Oh’, said the politician, ‘I wonder if you happen to know so and so?’, giving the name of a colleague of his who apparently lives in the same area. It tickled me at the time; the likelihood of my knowing the man he’d mentioned being virtually nil, given that we live in a large urban area in Britain’s most densely-populated region.

The lift arrived at our floor and we parted company, but the encounter made me reflect on how important it is for human beings to seek connections between each other, even in the unlikeliest of situations.

Human beings are social animals; we have not evolved to be on our own and lacking in close emotionally-fulfilling relationships. At its most basic, we need each other in order to procreate the species, and so making connections with each other fulfils a very basic evolutionary need. And if we follow that biological line of reasoning, close emotionally-fulfilling relationships have evolved to provide the best possible environment for the upbringing of the next generation.

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Beyond the purely biological, though, human beings need to feel a sense of belonging — of emotional connections not necessarily related to opportunities for reproduction! Research published last month by Brigham Young University shows that people with strong friendship networks have a higher life expectancy than those who have fewer such relationships, and that it’s both the giving and receiving of care and support that provides the protective effect. (See “Social Relationships and Mortality Risk: A Meta-analytic Review” at PLoS.) In fact, the protective effect of strong social relationships is so powerful that it can even outweigh the influence of risk factors to health such as obesity and smoking.

We all exist within nested circles of emotional connection, like ripples spreading out in a pond; from our core family relationships to a wider circle of friends, acquaintances, work colleagues, local communities and nations. Finding connections seems to be an innate human drive. Testimony to that is the success of social networking sites, which have grown from virtually nothing just five years ago to having hundreds of millions of users today. In a world in which we increasingly feel disconnected from our immediate neighbours, we are drawn towards seeking out other ways of feeling that we belong.

However popular they are, though, the rise of social networking sites doesn’t take away the need for face-to-face and in-person relationships. It has been suggested that while online relationships have their place, human beings need the physical presence of another for the hormone oxytocin — which helps induce feelings of love, contentment and bonding — to be released. Certainly, the science fiction concept of a future in which we all sit in separate boxes, plugged into computer networks that attempt to mimic the real-life encounters between human beings, fills me with horror.

Interestingly, technological advancement has brought us a sense both of how vast and diverse the world is, and alongside that, a sense of the world as a smaller and more inter-connected place. This is not a new thing; back in 1929, the Hungarian author Frigyes Karinthy wrote a short story called ‘Chains’ in which he put forward the idea that any two people on the planet could be linked by no more than 5 other individuals. He believed that modern technology was effectively ‘shrinking’ the world; while the geographical distances which people could travel became greater, the social distances between individuals became smaller as technology allowed us to communicate more easily with people very far away. (The idea has been credited as a forerunner of the popular concept of ‘Six Degrees of Separation’ — see the Wikipedia article for more on the latter.)

Karinthy’s concept was taken up by the American psychologist Stanley Milgram. He devised a series of experiments to investigate what he called the ‘Small World problem’, a way of measuring the closeness of the links between people in a social network. (Here again, more information on the series of experiments is available via Wikipedia.)

Milgram and his team sent out small packages to randomly selected individuals in different US cities, who were asked to send their package on toward a named ‘target’ recipient in another city. The participants were asked to send the package to any individual whom they knew personally who might be able to post it on to someone closer to the final target recipient. Milgram counted the links in these delivery chains and concluded that the average number of onward connections — or links in the social network — was between 5 and 6.

Although Milgram’s research and his results have been criticised (not least because it was based on social networks within a single nation, the United States, rather than across international or multi-cultural boundaries), his concept of a world in which we are all so closely inter-linked is a tantalising and ultimately reassuring one. I think most of us would like to believe that despite the often fragmented and isolating nature of modern life, we are all just a few social connections away from each other after all.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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