Humans are highly social beings. It’s an integral part of who we are. Being social, or not, has a huge impact on our health. Why is this the case? As a result of needing to separate ourselves from each other due to COVID-19, how is it impacting your health? What can you do to remain connected?
Social interaction is essential for humans. Interacting with others is in our nature and has helped our species to survive and thrive over millions of years. A 2011 study published in Nature states that being social was a key strength for our primate ancestors, especially when they stopped foraging for food by night to doing this during the day when it was more dangerous. A different study, also published in Nature, thinks that early hominids started using basic forms of language in order to share ideas.
Throughout history, we’ve been so keen on communicating with each other that we’ve developed a wide variety of tools to achieve that, such as pen and paper, telegraph, telephone, and internet. A French sociologist, Émile Durkheim, used the term “collective effervescence” over a hundred years ago to describe people’s shared emotional connectedness during religious ceremonies. Nowadays, the same concept applies to any event where spectators simultaneously experience the flux emotions together during the course of the event, such as a sports game. This dramatically magnifies the sensation of feeling part of something larger than yourself, which helps build cohesiveness.
Besides the evolutionary benefits of social interaction, numerous more recent studies have demonstrated that individuals who have fulfilling relationships with family, friends, and their community are happier, have fewer health problems, and live longer. A nine-year-long study of 7,000 men and women, started in 1965, found that those who are disconnected from others are roughly three times more likely to die than those with strong social ties. This is true regardless of a person’s age, gender, health practices, or physical health status. The researchers went on to say that individuals who had close social ties but unhealthy lifestyle habits, like smoking, obesity, and lack of exercise, actually lived longer than people with poor social ties but more healthy lifestyles. However, the researchers did point out that people with healthy lifestyles and close social ties lived the longest out of any group.
A different study published in The New England Journal of Medicine in 1984 showed that among 2,320 men who had survived a heart attack, the ones with strong social connections had only a quarter the risk of death within the next three years when compared to those who lacked social connectedness. A 2001 study done at Duke University Medical Center had similar findings. People who are more connected to others usually have lower levels of anxiety and depression. They also have higher self-esteem, greater empathy for others, and are more trusting and cooperative. This leads to others being more open to trusting and cooperating with them. There’s even an association between perceived social connectedness and stress responses.
Loneliness increases the activity of the sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the fight-or-flight response. It especially impacts the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which oversees the stress hormones’ roles in the stress response. Studies have found that having a friend present or knowing you can call them for help can reduce a person’s cardiovascular response when trying to perform a stressful task. This social connection helps to provide psychological comfort, especially during traumatic events.
It’s key to note that direct person-to-person contact causes our nervous systems to release neurotransmitters designed to regulate our response to stress and anxiety. This means that communicating with people face-to-face helps make us more resistant to stress factors over the long term. Another benefit of social interaction is that dopamine is generated, which gives us a little high and kills pain. One study determined that a romantic partner’s touch can help lessen physical pain.
Another study found that people who participated in group exercise programs had decreased stress levels and better mental and physical well-being than those who exercised independently. Social connectedness can help to improve memory formation/recall and protect the brain against neurodegenerative diseases. For instance, when you learn something with the intent of sharing that knowledge with others, you can recall the information better than if you just try to memorize data.
The opposite of social connectedness is social isolation, a significant trigger for mental illness. Many experts predict that depression will become second only to heart disease as an international health problem. In a 2018 survey, nearly 50% of Americans stated that they sometimes or always feel alone or left out, 20% said they rarely or never feel close to people, and 18% said they rarely or never have anyone they can talk to. One major concern is that only 53% of respondents said they have a long conversation with a friend or spend time interacting with family daily.
Many Americans state they don’t have a close friend with whom they feel comfortable sharing a personal problem. So, we aren’t getting enough face-to-face meaningful interaction to meet our needs.
The reason for this societal decline in social connectedness is despite having access to many different forms of social media that are supposed to help us stay connected, these platforms can’t replace actual physical interaction. Unfortunately, as people become lonelier, a vicious cycle ensues where they move to the edges of social networks and begin to trust others less, leading to isolation and loneliness. This also has a domino effect within society in that when people start to withdraw from others, these individuals do the same.
Loneliness has been linked to numerous problems with attention, executive function, cognitive function and even increases the risk for Alzheimer’s disease. Depression is also linked to loneliness, with one of the main symptoms being social isolation. Individuals who are socially isolated are less able to deal with stressful situations and more likely to have problems processing information, which causes it to be more difficult for them to make decisions, store memories, and recall events. In addition, people who are lonely are more susceptible to illness.
People who are chronically lonely are more likely to experience higher levels of stress and inflammation, which can weaken the well-being of almost every bodily system. Chronic inflammation has been connected to heart disease, arthritis, Type 2 diabetes, and suicide attempts. In 2010, a report from researchers at the University of Texas at Austin, published in The Journal of Health and Social Behavior, stated that there is reliable and convincing evidence that low quantity or quality social ties can cause a number of conditions, such as the development and worsening of cardiovascular disease, repeated heart attacks, autoimmune disorders, high blood pressure, cancer, and slow wound healing.
Researchers in the Netherlands found that individuals who did not participate in social activities, like going out with friends or joining a club, had a 60% higher risk of developing prediabetes when compared to those who did. Another study reported that people who are lonely had reduced activity of anti-viral genes, and how genes are expressed can be adversely affected, which impairs the body’s ability to fight infections and turn off inflammation.
Being socially involved throughout your life is vital. When you’re a child, it’s important to have a good balance of interaction at home and school because if you don’t, your cognitive, language, and social development lags significantly. As a teen, your brain development results in a lot of ups and downs since you encounter many new social situations. This results in you being able to balance multiple social spheres and expectations in your life. A significant amount of research has shown that teenagers who have close friends to talk to are less likely to become depressed or have other mental health problems, not only as teens but throughout their lives. This is also the time in our lives when our desire to connect usually peaks.
When you’re in your 20s and 30s, you start experiencing many major life events, like graduating from college, starting your first full-time job, getting married, buying a house, and having kids. All of these things alter your social circles, which means there are several opportunities to make new social connections and re-create yourself. In your 40s and 50s, you become more interested in socializing again because as your children move out, you have empty nest syndrome. Sometimes, during this period, stress can increase from expanded roles and more opportunities at work. For those over 60, retirement sounds relaxing, but changes in routine, lack of daily mental stimulation, and reduced social interactions can have a negative impact.
A recent National Academy of Sciences study explains why older people may be more susceptible to loneliness. These include the loss of family or friends, chronic illness, and sensory impairments, such as hearing loss. This decrease in social interaction as we age is concerning because a recent study found that maintaining close friendships later in life could help prevent mental decline. According to the Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer’s Disease Center at Northwestern University, SuperAgers, who are people who are 80 and above but have the mental agility of much younger people, seem to have one thing in common. They have close friends. These individuals have greater levels of positive social relationships than their cognitively average peers.
Around the world, there are places called Blue Zones, where there are high numbers of SuperAgers. While other elements related to diet and lifestyle varied widely, they all were dedicated to being highly socially active. The data shows that they were constantly surrounded by family, neighbors, and other members of their community. Also, they all actively supported each other. This demonstrates that people with supportive friends and family generally have better mental and physical health in the long run than those who lack these networks. No matter your education level, employment status, or marital/cohabiting condition, this is crucial.
Social connectedness can be nurtured in a variety of simple ways. One study found that even “weak” social interactions, like those with classmates or casual acquaintances, increase our happiness level. This suggests that we might not need to only have “deep” interactions to gain the psychological benefits of social connection. The best way to get benefit from social interaction is through face-to-face visits, especially for older individuals. While talking on the phone, texting, email, and apps, such as Skype and FaceTime, can definitely help people stay connected, they can’t replace the value face-to-face interactions bring because when we directly interact with other people. A good portion of the meaning is conveyed through nonverbal behavior, not by the actual words. These subtleties of body language, facial expressions, and gestures get lost in electronic media. So, these forms of communication aren’t as good as face-to-face interactions, they’re definitely better than no interaction.
There are a variety of ways to increase your opportunities for having face-to-face interactions. It can be something as simple as walking through your neighborhood and making a point to say hello to people you meet or participating in a neighborhood or community group. Other options to consider:
- Try playing a group sport, such as lawn bowling, golf, or croquet, or exercise with a friend by walking, swimming, or going to the gym together.
- Sign up for a class at your local recreation center, library or university, or visit a museum with a friend and chat about what you see.
- Stay connected to your family by babysitting your grandkids (or nieces/nephews) or helping them with homework.
- Connect with friends by having them over for coffee or tea or to play cards or board games.
- Attend religious services at your church, synagogue, or temple, sing in a choir, or play music in a group.
- One social activity that is known to boost wellbeing is volunteering, this is especially true for retired individuals.
The key is to create a strong social circle throughout your life so you’ll be able to keep a full calendar.
To encourage more social interaction within their communities, there are many things local governments could do. The first would be providing financial support to volunteering and social enterprise groups. Next, it’s vital to ensure that planning policies include provision for public meeting places and green spaces. Public spaces, like parks, must be maintained so they’re perceived as safe places to visit. Governments should encourage the development of neighborhood projects. It’s vital to continue funding for lower-priced transport for senior citizens, like bus and rail passes, since this enables them to maintain their social networks and reduce their risk of social isolation, even if they’re unable to drive. Governmental support of programs aimed at supporting parents of young children is key. These efforts and many others designed to reduce loneliness in society will allow people to repair their social networks and create a protective barrier against loneliness.
While these measures are vital to encourage social connections, due to COVID-19, this is exactly the opposite of what public health officials are asking us to do. Staying away from each other is crucial for slowing the spread of the virus and preventing our healthcare system from getting overwhelmed. However, it won’t be easy because it goes directly against our inherent need to connect. Unfortunately, social distancing may exacerbate things for individuals who are already isolated and lonely. If someone already has problems with social anxiety, depression, loneliness, substance abuse, or other health problems, they’re going to be more vulnerable during this time.
There’s also some concern that social distancing will prompt others to get into the habit of connecting less than they already do. This period will also test our capacity for cooperation because the goal is to protect everyone, not just people we know and care about. Hopefully, raising awareness of these issues will encourage people to stay connected and take positive action.
We need each other. The connectedness that allowed our ancestors to survive is still evident today. We all dream, learn, grow, and work as part of a larger society. We need to socialize with people because it lets us acquire fresh insights about the world. Even the most introverted people still need social contact from time to time. During this challenging time in our history, we need to support one another.
In some ways, giving support is even more beneficial than receiving it. So, while we shouldn’t physically be around each other right now, we can remain connected by calling family and friends and reaching out to neighbors. Humans are remarkably resilient, and we will get through this…together!