Social connection improves physical health, mental health, and emotional well-being. We all think we know how to take good care of ourselves: eat your veggies, work out and try to get enough sleep. But how many of us know that social connection is just as critical?
One landmark study showed that lack of social connection is a greater detriment to health than obesity, smoking, and high blood pressure.
On the other hand, strong social connection:
- leads to a 50% increased likelihood of longevity, so it may even lengthen your life!
- strengthens your immune system (research by Steve Cole shows that genes impacted by loneliness also code for immune function and inflammation)
- helps you recover from disease faster
People who feel more connected to others have lower levels of anxiety and depression. Moreover, studies show they also have higher self-esteem, greater empathy for others, are more trusting and cooperative and, as a consequence, others are more open to trusting and cooperating with them. In other words, social connectedness generates a positive feedback loop of social, emotional, and physical well-being.
Unfortunately, the opposite is also true for those who lack social connectedness. Low levels of social connection are associated with declines in physical and psychological health as well as a higher likelihood for antisocial behavior that leads to further isolation.
Research shows that loneliness is on the rise. Despite its clear importance for health and survival, research shows that social connectedness is waning at an alarming rate in the US. A revealing sociological study showed that the modal number of close others (i.e., people with whom one feels comfortable sharing a personal problem) Americans claimed to have in 1985 was only three. In 2004 it dropped to zero, with over 25% of Americans saying that they have no one to confide in. This survey suggests that one in four people that we meet may have no one they call a close friend!
This decline in social connectedness may explain reported increases in loneliness, isolation, and alienation and may be why research is finding that loneliness represents one of the leading reasons people seek psychological counseling.
People low in social connection are more vulnerable to anxiety, depression, and antisocial behavior, which tend to further increase their isolation, and could even lead to suicidal behaviors. Most poignantly, a landmark survey showed that lack of social connectedness predicts vulnerability to disease and death beyond traditional risk factors such as smoking, blood pressure, and physical activity! Eat your greens and exercise, yes, but don’t forget to connect.
Feel like you may be low on social connection?
Fear not! The good news is that social connection has more to do with your subjective feeling of connection than your number of friends. You could have 1,000 friends and still feel low in connection (thus the expression loneliness in a crowd) but you could also have no close friends or relatives but still feel very connected from within.
Emma Seppala, Ph.D. is the Associate Director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University. Emma completed her undergraduate degree at Yale University and Ph.D. in Psychology from Stanford University. Her doctoral research focused on interventions to increase compassionate behavior and social connectedness. She completed her post-doctoral research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison with Dr. Richard Davidson where she evaluated the effects of yoga- and meditation-based interventions for combat veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with post-traumatic stress disorder. Her research fields of expertise include compassion, emotion regulation, happiness, and mind-body interventions for well-being. You can learn more on her website at emmaseppala.com.
Republished with permission from emmaseppala.com.