No matter how healthy we are, most of us have times in our lives when we feel alone and have no one to turn to for support. And if you can’t identify with this, count your blessings.
In starting this discussion, I usually have to give a disclaimer because some of the very lovely people I work with are seemingly allergic to the word “God.” But don’t stop reading! I am not coming at this from any particular religion. You can view God through whichever religious lens you use or through a spiritual non-religious lens. You can even read to understand why other people might turn to this thing they call God when you don’t believe in God yourself. And, don’t worry; my personal belief is that something so limitless and all encompassing would not have a fragile ego and would not be offended or hurt if someone didn’t believe.
But if you can muster a belief or even imagine believing, it might just give you a little hope when life seems dark. In this respect, just as secure attachment to parents instills hope in children (Shorey, Snyder, Yang, & Lewin, 2003), secure attachment to God and to groups can foster hope in adults.
When I talk about hope, I am using the definition developed by my late mentor, Rick Snyder, and his colleagues at the University of Kansas (see Snyder, 2002). Hope was defined as a way of thinking composed of having (1) meaningful goals for the future; (2) the ability to identify routes to those goals, and (3) the motivation and energy to put those routes to use in the goal-pursuit process. High levels of hope have related to higher levels of performance and achievement across life areas, including academics, sports, relationships and mental health in children and in adults (see Snyder, 2002 for a review).
So, hope is important. Research shows that parents instill hope in their children when they act as “secure bases” from which children can confidently explore their environments. In the same sense, caregivers offer safe havens to which the children can retreat to be consoled and aided after becoming frightened in the face of environmental setbacks. When a secure base is lacking, either in childhood or adulthood (could still be a parent, or close friend, or significant other), people become less confident in their abilities to attain what is important to them in life. They also can start shying away from other people and potential problems in relationships.
Now, if you had enough experiences in using the secure base to explore and the safe haven to provide you with comfort and support in childhood, you probably have enough positive memories of support to tide you over some rough spots. These memories act as symbols of love and support in our minds and can help soothe our emotional systems by thinking about them. A belief in God or some other loving entity (even an organizing principal in nature or the Universe) can have a similar effect.
God, or the symbolic representation of that force in your mind, can serve as a secure base by offering a sense of security and reassurance as you go about your daily life. This secure base function might explain why researchers have found that secure attachment to God, similar to secure attachments to parents and attachment to romantic partners, yields positive mental health benefits. Higher levels of secure attachment to God have been found to predict less loneliness (Kirkpatrick, Shillito, & Kellas, 1999), more positive emotions (Rowatt & Kirkpatrick, 2002), and higher levels of optimism (Sim & Loh, 2003).
Remember, this does not require God reaching into your life and doing these things for you. But your belief in God as a secure base and source of comfort can lead you to think, feel, and behave in ways that make your life better and easier to live.
If you can’t bring yourself to believe in a loving power, either in the form of memories of others being there for you or symbolic representations of God in your mind (and hopefully you are still reading), you could derive similar benefits from membership in one or more groups.
Many of the people I refer to 12-step recovery programs (like AA) shy away from attending meetings because they cannot “swallow this God thing.” My suggestion in this case is to look for a higher power in the group. The second of AA’s 12 steps is “come to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.” In this respect, that “greater power” could be a group of people who are safe for you to confide in, who have your best interest and well-being in mind, who will comfort you when you fall and need support, and who will give you strategies for how to face your challenges.
You don’t need to run out and become an alcoholic to have a group like this. I met a woman recently who felt very alone and isolated when she moved with her husband to a new city. He worked long hours and late into the night. She felt desperate and alone. In trying to maintain her emotional balance she looked for activities and groups to join on a website called meetups.com. Although she was resistant, she joined a small tabletop gaming group. She described her initial perception of some of these people as quirky and a bit awkward, but within weeks she said she had “found my people.” She had a group of people who she met with regularly, who she could be herself with, who she could confide in, and who she could get support from in times of need. In the oddest of places, she found her secure base. By extension, she ended up being quite happy in her new city. She wasn’t that happy with her husband’s work or his being away so much; but she was happy with her life and knowing that she was not alone.
So, my take-home message is, you don’t have to have that wonderful romantic partner, that permanent/supportive spouse, or that accepting and embracing family to find peace of mind and hope in life. But you might need to believe. Believe that there is something bigger than you (e.g., God, the universe, nature, or your group) that can literally support you when you’re feeling down, or symbolically boost your spirits and emotional system because you have an image in your mind of love and support.