Reaching for a glass of water to quench my thirst one day, it struck me that our need for connection and life-giving relationships shares some similarities with our body’s need for water. We are biologically hardwired for both yet many of us have a tendency to downplay their importance, to the detriment of our well-being. Ignoring our level of hydration, both physical and relational, can hamper us from being our best selves and doing our best work.
Dehydration: Why It Matters
Have you ever found yourself fatigued or lethargic, feeling irritable or confused, experiencing “brain fog” or a headache, or getting muscle cramps, only to realize that the culprit was dehydration? According to The Mayo Clinic, “Water is your body's principal chemical component and makes up about 50% to 70% of your body weight. Your body depends on water to survive. Every cell, tissue and organ in your body needs water to work properly.”
We may know intellectually that being hydrated is critical to our body functioning as it is designed to do, but is that knowledge reflected in our actions? We accept that we need to monitor the gas gauge of a gas-powered car and be sure there is gas in the tank in order for the car to run or that an electric-powered vehicle will need to be recharged when it’s getting low. After all, no one wants to be on the side of the road with a vehicle that is depleted of fuel. But how about attending to our bodily “vehicle”? For someone whose “go-to” beverage all day long is black coffee, I confess my water intake is something I need to pay more attention to.
Dehydration can sneak up on us. The Mayo Clinic cautions, “Thirst isn't always a reliable early indicator of the body's need for water. Many people, particularly older adults, don't feel thirsty until they're already dehydrated.”
Relational Dehydration: Why It Matters
Just as thirst is not a reliable early indicator of dehydration, feeling lonely is not a reliable early indicator of our need for connection. You may be headed toward feeling burned out at work and not realize that what you need is more connection.
Human beings are biologically hardwired for connection, a case made in Connection Culture: The Competitive Advantage of Shared Identity, Empathy, and Understanding at Work. Numerous research studies establish that social connection is a primal human need that appears to improve the performance of the body’s cardiovascular, endocrine and immune systems. Studies also show that lacking sufficient connection is associated with a variety of negative outcomes, including poorer cognitive performance, decreased sleep quality, greater feelings of helplessness, and more intense reactions to negatives and less uplift from positives. For a person who is relationally-dehydrated, if you will, the stress of life feels heavier.
Knowing this, you would think we would pay closer attention to maintaining a healthy level of connection. In our American culture, however, our natural drift pattern is toward individualism that often leads to disconnection. Too many work environments are cultures of control or indifference instead of cultures of connection and belonging. Even when we know intellectually that connection is good for us, and if we’ve experienced how connection smooths the path toward working well with others, the stress and the pace of life can cause us to disregard our need for connection or act in ways that break connection.
Rehydrating Physically and Relationally: How to Get Started
What should you be aiming for? How much water do you need each day and how much connection will benefit you? There are no set answers. You will need to experiment to find the levels that are best for you but start from the premise that you need more of both. There are articles that state up to 75% of Americans are chronically dehydrated; similarly, our low connection levels are serious enough that the U.S. Surgeon General considers it an urgent public health matter and issued an advisory, Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation: The Surgeon General’s Advisory on the Healing Effects of Social Connection and Community, in May 2023.
The standard recommendation for physical hydration is to drink eight glasses of water each day. Given your age, general health, activity level and the climate you’re in, you might need more or less than that. Here are a few ideas to increase your intake of water:
- Start your day with a glass of water when you first get up.
- Even if you have another beverage, also have a glass of water with breakfast, lunch and dinner. (Additional benefit: Drinking water helps with digestion.)
- Set a series of alarms on your phone to remind you to take water breaks throughout the day.
- Fill up a reusable water bottle and take it with you when you are away from home or the office so you’ll have water at-hand.
- While plain water is the best option for getting rehydrated, you can mix it up by adding citrus to the water or having sparkling water. Other beverages composed mostly of water can contribute to your intake, such as juice, milk and herbal tea. Soda and caffeinated coffee count but be aware that they have dehydrating effects when you have high quantities.
- Eat water-rich fruits and vegetables, such as strawberries, peaches, oranges, watermelon, lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes and spinach. While about 80% of daily fluid intake comes from what we drink, the rest comes from the foods we eat.
Increasing your intake of connection is less about quantity and more about the quality and the positive effect of the connection you have with others. You may be a person whose relational “gas tank” is happily filled by a long talk with a great friend rather than a weekend full of social events. Here are a few ideas:
- Invite someone you enjoy being with or would like to get to know better to have lunch or a coffee break with you.
- Combine connecting with another activity. Catch up with a friend or family member as you take a walk together. One friend of mine often uses her drive time in the car to make a phone call to a friend.
- Join a gym that has group exercise and make an effort to connect with people in the class.
- Volunteer to help a local not-for-profit organization where you can meet and work alongside other volunteers who share a similar interest.
- Get involved in a local faith community. (According to Harvard’s Robert Putnam, half of social capital in America comes from participating in communities of faith).
- Whenever possible, opt for connecting in “real time” — either in-person, by phone or on a video call — so you have verbal and non-verbal aspects of communication to add to the content being shared.
- At work, be intentional about pursuing meaningful connection with your colleagues. Be an active listener. Look for opportunities to help others. Connection Culture is full of tips to help you foster an environment that is rich with attitudes, language and behaviors that connect people with their colleagues, their work and the organization as a whole. You don’t have to have formal leadership responsibilities to make an impact and improve the culture in your group.
So, would you say you are relationally hydrated or dehydrated these days? As we enter the hotter summer months, having this hydration analogy in mind might spur you on toward developing good habits and increasing your level of connection.
About the Author
Katharine P. Stallard is a partner of Connection Culture Group and a contributing author to Connection Culture: The Competitive Advantage of Shared Identity, Empathy, and Understanding at Work.