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The problem of connection

How can we predictably meet our needs for connection? Maybe we can’t…

The Happiness Problem stems from the fact that we are motivated to predictably meet our needs for survival and connection. Via our emotions and moods, we see the world as a place full of problems, threats and opportunities. Successfully solving these problems, avoiding these threats, and taking these opportunities, can all help to more certainly and securely meet our needs – to meet our needs both now and in the foreseeable future. However, the problem is that these actions, no matter how successful, will never be enough. We can always act to meet our needs with further certainty and security. We will always be vulnerable to further threats and unknowns. We need to understand just how much security we can hope for within our inherently insecure lives.

When we get this wrong, the consequences can be devastating. In this post, I will consider how the Happiness Problem relates to our need for connection.

We are social animals – we navigate the world through our relationships with others – our friends, family, partners, community, colleagues, and so on. We look towards those around us, especially those like us, to discover what is possible. When an infant in distress scans their environment and finds no relief in the form of a responsive caregiver, it tells them something about their world – that things are unpredictable, that safety is a scarce resource. Likewise, when we look out towards our environment, we primarily look towards others – who do we belong to, who can we rely on, and what can we offer in return? These are questions of survival, seeking answers through the medium of connection.

Of particular importance are our attachment relationships. Within our attachment relationships, we rely on another person to provide us with support and a kind of generous attention that we are unlikely to receive from a stranger, colleague, or even a friend. This support and recognition is mutual – we see and care about the people we are attached to.

The currency that binds attachment relationships together is trust. It is through trust that we can rely on someone without knowing for sure whether they can be relied on. And it is through trust that we can rely on someone, be let down, yet still find a way to rely on them in the future. Building trust is something that happens incrementally over time, through countless interactions of mutual support and recognition, each one strengthening the attachment.

Attachment relationships are something we learn how to navigate from the moment we are born. Since the 1960s, development psychologists studied “attachment styles” in infants, which developed out of an infant’s relationship with their primary caregivers. Infants were shown to have either a “secure” or “insecure” attachment style, whereby “insecure” infants were less able to cope with the absence of a primary caregiver. “Anxious insecure” infants tended to react to the absence of a primary caregiver with distress and were unable to calm down after their caregiver returned. In contrast, “Avoidant insecure” infants tended to be indifferent to the support of their caregiver.

In the 1980s, psychologists began to look at the extent to which these attachment styles held in adult romantic relationships. They found that adult romantic attachments could be described in the same way – as either ‘secure’, ‘anxious insecure’ and ‘avoidant insecure’ – and that these descriptions predicted both the longevity and satisfaction of those relationships. In short, people with secure attachment styles tended to be in longer and more satisfying relationships.

The opposite goes for those who could be described as having either an anxious or avoidant attachment style. “Anxious insecure” individuals tend to desire physical and emotional closeness, are more dependent on their partner, and find it hard to cope with indifference, or any potential indifference. In contrast, “avoidant insecure” individuals tend to desire more independence, and find it hard to be physically and emotionally close and intimate with their partner.

Both attachment styles are ways of coping with the insecurity that is inherent in any attachment relationship, whereby two people rely on each other for support and recognition. Our attachment styles are born out of the times we have failed to receive this support and recognition and our strategies for trying to make sure the same thing doesn’t happen again in the future.

To some extent, these attachment styles help – they help us rely on other in ways they can actually be relied upon. For example, it may help sometimes to be “anxiously insecure” – to ask your partner for reassurance or to try and figure out what they are feeling. At other times, it may help to be “avoidantly insecure” – to not be so attached, to seek connection from other people or activities.

However, every strategy for meeting our attachment needs will be incomplete. Although we can receive much of what we need through our attachment relationships, we will never be able to predictably meet our attachment needs. For one thing, people change. Our partner or friend may have been able to provide us with support or recognition at some point, but now may not be able to. Moreover, we are complex. The support and recognition we desired at some point may be different to what we desire now. These changes and complexities go both ways. Indeed, it’s amazing that two complex and ever-changing individuals can come together at all and successfully meet each other’s attachment needs.

Of course, often they don’t. Hell can be other people. When our attachment needs are unmet, we can become desperate. Disconnection may be at the heart of many forms of suffering, from addictive behaviours to narcissism. These kinds of strategies for meeting our attachment needs can be extremely harmful. And yet we all employ strategies of this kind to some degree. We may all be addicted to our mobile phones, or information, or entertainment. And we may all sometimes act as if the world revolved around us, whereby others exist only to serve our own body, mind, feelings and interests.

This is how the Happiness Problem relates to our need for connection. We can find solace in others – loved ones can help us meet our attachment needs. But we can never be certain and secure in the connection we receive. Our attempts to achieve too much certainty and security from our attachments can be harmful, and often end up in us achieving the opposite.

How can we know how much certainty and security is possible within our attachment relationships? How can we know how much to rely on, and trust in, those we love? The answers to these kinds of questions are complicated and we’ll have plenty to say about them in future posts. However, the first thing we need to realise is that we can never know for sure. Any attempts to solve the Happiness Problem with absolute certainty will only make it worse.

3 suggestions for further reading:

  • Eric Fromm: The Art of Loving

  • Johann Hari: Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War of Drugs

  • Rachel Heller & Amir Levine: Attached

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