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Why success at the cost of social relationships is a false notion

It is important to recognise how social support facilitates goal-achievement and improves well-being

Research indicates that groups that received social support while working towards their goals were more successful than groups that had to walk alone.(Unsplash/Hannah Busing)

By Devika Oberai

LAST PUBLISHED 03.11.2023  |  02:01 PM IST

My perfectly curated Instagram feed has recently picked up on a stream of content that details routines of people on a path to achieving professional success. They highlight that self-growth happens in solitude and they normalize not seeing friends and family to reach new heights in one’s career. The idea that professional success comes at the cost of personal relationships is not new, but I wonder if it is necessary to constantly position them at opposite ends of the same continuum? 

George Monibiot in The Guardian argued that even though humans are social beings, neoliberalism continuously tells them that “the only way to prosper is through competition and extreme individualism". Similarly, Sophie K Rosa in her book, Radical Intimacy, explains how capitalism physically and materially, infiltrates and predetermines our intimate lives. This has led to a culture of defining success in strictly individualistic terms, valuing independent, professional goal attainment. 

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When we think about a successful person or someone doing well, the markers of success that come to mind include higher status, wealth, and prestige- especially in capitalistic and individualistic societies. Similarly, research (published in Psychological Science) indicates that over the past few decades, affluent societies following a neoliberal political economy have become more individualistic, and this is increasing competition and loneliness amongst people while reducing social connection, as evidenced in the British Journal of Social Psychology. These narratives are reflected through the media too. 

Pop culture’s idea of success
Dr. Karrin Anderson, professor at the Department of Communication Studies at Colorado State University, notes that popular film and TV traditionally operationalize “success" as “wealth". Similarly, while nuclear families are an important unit in Western media like in the Cosby Show and Modern Family,  success is most often depicted as ‘a fulfilling career and independent lifestyle’. In looking for definitions of “successful", Google’s Oxford Language Dictionary defines it as “having achieved fame, wealth or social status".

One common consequence of this ideology is deprioritisation of social relationships. “Personal relationships can become collateral damage when you’re continuously taught to focus on the bigger picture, which is often depicted as a series of accomplishments, not prioritizing interpersonal relationships or connections," highlights Dr. Bhumika Kapoor, a social psychologist and assistant professor of psychology at Delhi University. 

Pop culture reinforces this by placing love and career at odds, especially for women. “There are entire genres (most Hallmark Christmas movies) based on the assumption that professional ambition is antithetical to love", mentions Dr. Anderson. Emily Henry’s latest novel, Happy Place, explores multiple themes; but one of them is about (spoiler ahead) – the protagonist having to stay away from her fiancé to finish medical school– a line of plot that eventually feeds into their separation.

One of the reasons for this deprioritization, in addition to the political economy, can be attributed to technology and social media - they limit people’s incentives to engage in real, intimate connections. “Algorithms determine a lot of our behaviour and social media gives us the illusion of connection using the same physiological responses (eg. secretion of dopamine)," says Dr. Kapoor. These connections, however, are not as intimate or vulnerable. Kapoor went on to add, “given that there are only so many hours in a day, and there is a larger hustle-culture narrative in the background, this arrangement of keeping in touch is via templated reactions, stickers, and memes." Keeping the lines of communication open without putting in a lot of time and effort, Kapoor notes, works for people. 

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Amidst these narratives, research (published on the World Economic Forum and The Lancet) suggests a decline in people’s mental health and increasing levels of loneliness. This is not surprising. But do successful life outcomes necessarily come at the cost of social support networks, as often depicted? 

There’s enough research to prove otherwise. 

Quality support matters
A study published in Plos One in 2020, for instance, demonstrated that regardless of the resolution people set, groups that received social support while working towards their goals were more successful than groups that had to walk alone. Shaurya Gahlawat, a counseling psychologist, professor, and supervisor based in Gurgaon, highlighted that individuals who have built a supportive network of friends, neighbours, and community are known to feel healthier, and report an overall sense of wellbeing “as social support helps people find platforms to talk about their struggles, ask for help, provide assistance to others and reduce stress." Divija Bhasin, a counseling psychologist reiterated this idea and added that “it was not just the quantity of social support, but the quality of support that is important."

While families are universal support systems, Bhasin notes that families that are more controlling and judgemental make life transitions more difficult. Nevertheless, quality support from friends and families where people were not judged can be helpful.  Similarly, Shrayana Bhattacharya, in her essay in LivMint titled “The Private Rebellions Of India Women", detailed how friendships and solidarity groups were vital to women’s well-being. 

It is through these support networks that women were able to explore economic opportunities and freedoms - not just for themselves, but also for their children. Lastly, a recent study published in Nature Mental Health followed adults in the UK for 9 years, and concluded that social connections was one of the strongest factors associated with reducing repeated depressive episodes.

While there are limits to how much a system can change, there is space for individuals to orient themselves to a set of more community-focused behaviours while in their pursuit of professional success, as the two might not necessarily be antithetical to each other, as often thought of. 

Julia Roberts in Eat Pray Love left New York all on her own to regain her appetite for life. But, she was not alone in Rome, India, or Bali. In fact, she probably would not have found her “balance" - if it wasn’t for the people she met along the way.

Devika Oberai is a psychology graduate from Delhi University, now working in the development sector.

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