Healthy habits like eating real foods, exercising and getting eight hours of sleep each night are vital to our health, but having a strong set of social connections is equally as important!
Perhaps you’ve had to relocate far away from friends and loved ones to pursue a career opportunity, or maybe a chronic disease makes you feel trapped in your own home. It could be that you’re a little shy and find the act of forging new friendships a challenge. Whatever the reasons why your social life has fallen by the wayside, efforts to create meaningful connections has far reaching implications for your physical and emotional wellbeing.
A study by the University of Chicago revealed that extreme loneliness actually increases a person’s chances of premature death by 14%, and this increased mortality risk is comparable to that from smoking.
The health consequences of loneliness are pretty dramatic. Social isolation has been shown to alter gene expression of immune cells, impairing immune function and triggering inflammation, which can lead to arthritis, diabetes and heart disease. Studies have found that feeling isolated from others can disrupt sleep, elevate blood pressure, and increase morning levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
Moreover, individuals who are low in social connection are more vulnerable to anxiety, depression and suicidal thinking, which lend further to an increased sense of isolation.
A societal problem
Loneliness is epidemic, but as a society we rarely talk about it. Indeed, resent research reveals that loneliness is on the rise in our culture and that social connectedness is declining at an alarming rate.
Sociologists at Duke and the University of Arizona found that more than a quarter of people said they have no one with whom they can share their personal triumphs or troubles. If families aren’t counted, this number leaps to 50% of Americans who have no one with whom to share confidences. This increase in social isolation represents the one of the leading reasons why people seek psychological counseling.
The benefits of connection
On the other hand, having strong social connections leads to a 50% increased chance of longevity. Maintaining friendships also serves to strengthen your immune system, and helps you to recover from disease more quickly.
People who feel more connected to others experience lower levels of anxiety and depression. Furthermore, social connections generates a positive feedback loop of mental and emotional wellbeing. Studies have shown that connected individuals tend to have higher self-esteem, increased empathy for others, a tendency to be more trusting and cooperative, and as a consequence, others are more likely to be trusting and cooperative in return.
It’s not about how many friends you have. All the benefits of social connection come from your internal and subjective sense of connection. What matter most is that you feel connected with others, even if your social circles remain small. Here are some ways to establish meaningful connection with others:
Acts of service: Research shows that compassion and volunteering has huge health benefits and creates a sense of connection and purpose. Furthermore, evidence shows that when we are in need of help, we should ask for it. Doing so will create a sense of belongingness in those from whom we seek help.
Self-care: Stress is linked to higher levels of self focus and therefore a lower sense of connectedness. Making it a habit to keep your stress levels low serves to increase your sense of happiness. And when you are happier, you are more likely to feel able to extend friendship to others and to feel more connected.
Reaching out: Research shows that people are often ready and willing to help us in times of need, yet if we don’t ask for assistance, others assume we don’t need their help. Be courageous and reach out to those around you when times are hard. If you’re down about spending the Christmas holidays alone, ask friends if you can join their festivities, or invite them to yours.
Eat healthy, exercise and get some sleep, but by all means, don’t neglect to connect!