I had a very long career in Corporate America, one that spanned over 28 years. As my career grew more complex and time consuming, I found myself more limited in being able to be present for my family and friends. Late nights at the office denied me the ability to socialize over dinner, go do fun activities like a movie or a sporting event, or even just take a break to go for a nice walk. Climbing the proverbial corporate ladder came at a very high price and the lose of social connection was one of the casualties.
At one point in the latter part of my career, I was transferred to Seattle, Washington, to work as a Regional Program Manager for a major oil company. After just being gone for six months, I found that friends had removed me from their invite lists for activities and I was in a new city without a support structure outside of work. I remember very clearly how lonely I felt with my family in another city and without a well-connected group of friends. This experience made me keenly aware of the psychological stress that occurs when we don’t have someone we feel close to for sharing our thoughts and feelings.
I really enjoyed reading this article by Dr. Emma Seppala when I found it on her website. I was a little shocked to read that 25% of Americans believe they have no one to confide in! I hope you find her article as revealing as I did when I read about the consequences of social isolation.
Life is short. Spend it with people who make you laugh and feel loved.
THE IMPORTANCE OF SOCIAL CONNECTIONS-BY DR. EMMA SEPPALA
We all know the basics of health 101: eat your veggies, go to the gym and get proper rest. But how many of us know that social connection is as important? Social connection improves physical health and psychological well-being. One telling study showed that lack of social connection is a greater detriment to health than obesity, smoking, and high blood pressure. On the the flip side, strong social connection leads to a 50% increased chance of longevity. Social connection strengthens our immune system (research by Steve Cole shows that genes impacted by social connection also code for immune function and inflammation), helps us recover from disease faster, and may even lengthen our life. People who feel more connected to others have lower rates of anxiety and depression.
Moreover, studies show they also have higher self-esteem, are more empathic to others, more trusting and cooperative and, as a consequence, others are more open to trusting and cooperating with them. Social connectedness therefore 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 social connection has been generally associated with declines in physical and psychological health as well as a higher propensity to antisocial behavior that leads to further isolation.
THE DECLINE OF SOCIAL CONNECTION
Despite its clear importance for health and survival, sociological research suggests that social connectedness is waning at an alarming rate in the US. A revealing sociological study showed that the modal number of close confidantes (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 one, with 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 studies are finding that loneliness represents one of the leading reasons people seek psychological counseling. Those who are not socially connected are more vulnerable to anxiety, depression, antisocial behavior, and even suicidal behaviors which tend to further increase their isolation. Most poignantly, a landmark survey showed that lack of social connectedness predicts vulnerability to disease and death above and beyond traditional risk factors such as smoking, blood pressure, and physical activity! Eat your greens and exercise, yes, but don’t forget to connect.
WE ARE ALL SOCIAL CREATURES BY DESIGN
Brene Brown, Professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, specializes in social connection. In an interview, she told me: A deep sense of love and belonging is an irresistible need of all people. We are biologically, cognitively, physically, and spiritually wired to love, to be loved, and to belong. When those needs are not met, we don’t function as we were meant to. We break. We fall apart. We numb. We ache. We hurt others. We get sick.
We are profoundly social creatures. We may think we want money, power, fame, beauty, eternal youth or a new car, but at the root of most of these desires is a need to belong, to be accepted, to connect with others, to be loved. We pride ourselves on our independence, on pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps, having a successful career and above all not depending on anyone. But, as psychologists from Maslow to Baumeister have repeatedly stressed, the truth of the matter is that a sense of social connection is one of our fundamental human needs.
PHYSIOLOGICAL HEALTH AND SOCIAL CONNECTIONS
For those who doubt, just think of the sting of rejection. A brain imaging study led by Ethan Kross at the University of Michigan suggests that the same parts of the brain are activated during social rejection as during physical pain. Another recent study lead by Shelley Taylor at the University of California Los Angeles suggests that stress due to conflict in relationships leads to increased inflammation levels in the body. Both physically and psychologically, we experience social connection as positive and rejection or loneliness as negative.
Are you shy? Is it hard for you to meet people? Rest your worries. The most interesting fact about connection is that it has nothing to do with the number of friends you have on Facebook or the amount of community groups to which you belong. If you’re a loner or an introvert, you can still reap the benefits.
How is that possible? A sense of connection is internal: Researchers agree that the benefits of connection are actually linked to your subjective sense of connection. In other words, if you feel connected to others on the inside, you reap the benefits thereof! That is good news. While many of us cannot always control the number of friends we have, one thing we can take responsibility for is the state of our mind. Ever felt lonely in a crowd or a group of your own acquaintances? In the same way, it is possible to feel connected in a group of strangers. We can foster, nurture and build our internal sense of connection. It just takes a little courage and a spirit of adventure.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
EMMA SEPPALA is Science Director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University and Co-Director of the Yale College Emotional Intelligence Project at Yale University. She is the author of The Happiness Track: How to Apply the Science of Happiness to Accelerate Your Success. Her field of expertise is health psychology, well-being, and resilience. She holds an undergraduate degree in comparative literature from Yale University, a masters degree in East Asian languages and cultures from Columbia University, and a Ph.D. in psychology from Stanford University.