Did you know that people who are more socially connected to family, friends, or their community are more likely to be happier, physically healthier, and live longer, with fewer mental health problems than people who are less well connected?
Communicating with others is fundamentally good for us, which is perhaps why human beings are social animals and wired to seek social support and understanding. But what is happening inside us that makes social connection so vitally important to our physical and mental health?
What is loneliness?
Before we delve into the benefits of social connection, it’s important to explore and understand the opposite feeling: loneliness.
The vast majority of Australians experienced some level of loneliness during the peak of the pandemic, with long lockdowns keeping face-to-face connections to a large extent. It’s important to note that everyone would have ‘suffered’ differently because loneliness is subjective. In other words, someone could have a big family and lots of friends and still feel lonely. On the flip side, an individual can be alone and feel no sense of loneliness whatsoever.
In 2018 a group of Australian psychologists published a paper, The Loneliness Report, in which loneliness was described as an “absence of desired closeness, sincerity and emotionality in their relationships”.
Essentially, the emotion isn’t based on how many people we have around us, but the quality of the interactions we have with them.
What happens to us when we’re lonely?
According to the Loneliness Report, when humans experience a lack of quality connections, the impacts are both mental and physical. On the mental health side, the report noted that the negative connotations were cyclical. It found that loneliness increases the chance of being depressed or anxious about social interactions, and experiencing depression and social interaction anxiety also increases the chance of being lonely.
The impact of loneliness on poor physical health outcomes were demonstrated via poorer sleep, more headache symptoms, increased stomach complaints and more frequent respiratory infections.
Other research conducted by Cleveland Clinic psychologist Amy Sullivan, PsyD, has shown that loneliness increases the production of cortisol in the body. This can impair cognitive performance, compromise the immune system, and increase your risk for vascular problems, inflammation and heart disease. A Swiss national survey even found a connection between loneliness and high cholesterol and type 2 diabetes.
The benefits of strong social connections
The benefits of good social connections begin early in life. Research conducted by academics and published in their paper “School recess, social connectedness and health: a Canadian perspective” found that children benefit from socialising and that peer relationships are critical to their overall development. It also suggested that the more socially connected a child is, the less likely they are to experience substance abuse or mental health problems later in life.
Similarly, adults seem less likely to struggle with mental health symptoms if they are socially connected. One study published in the Australian & New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry found that adults who were already socially connected were less likely to develop mental health distress after one year. The same study also indicated that adults with mental health distress were less socially connected prior to experiencing distress.
Having good social connections can also help during a crisis. This was reported in a study in Austria in early 2020, which was published in the British Journal of Health Psychology. A group of individuals were interviewed over a period of six weeks while in lockdown. It was found that people who had greater social connectedness were less likely to experience COVID-19-related worry. On the other hand, the interviewees with small social circles reported higher distress and more fatigue.
Later in life, research has even suggested that having close ties to friends and family, and participating in meaningful social activities, may help maintain mental acuity and slow down cognitive decline.
How to improve social connections
It’s easy to say ‘get more friends’, but in practice, this can be hard for some people. However, improving your social connections doesn’t necessarily involve searching for new acquaintances. You can invest time in nurturing existing relationships with people who you value by spending more time with them, and by ensuring you speak with one of them every day.
According to ‘Better Health Australia’ there are three kinds of connections that you can have with people:
- Intimate connections – with people who love and care for you, such as family and friends.
- Relational connections – with people who you see regularly and share an interest with, such as workmates, teammates, or those who serve your morning coffee.
- Collective connections – with people who share a group membership or an affiliation with you, such as people who vote like you do, or people who have the same faith.
Ask yourself: Do you have meaningful, long-term relationships in any of these 3 areas?
Have a hard think about the social connections you currently have and if you are happy with them. You might find you are spending too much time with people who don’t know you that well rather than with people who share similar values.
Indeed, one key way to strengthen social connections is to reach out to the people you already care about, including co-workers, family, or neighbours. Contact them and let them know you would like to be in touch more often. Arrange to catch up for a coffee, to go to a music gig, or to play a round of golf.
If you want to meet new people, there are several ways to do this. Joining a club is one of the most effective ways to meet people. However, simply making the effort to start a conversation with some of the people you see every day, such as the people on your bus each morning, people at the gym or the dog park, or co-workers in another department at your place of work can help gain the new connections you are looking for.
If you’re struggling to get out there, taking a break from social media can make you become much more intentional in seeking out real relationships. Remember, the idea of social connection is to share your time, experiences and stories with people, and to also listen to them. While some strategies may not work for everyone, it’s important to keep trying and find a strategy that works for you.
Although seeking new or improved connections may mean pushing yourself out of your comfort zone, the rewards far outweigh the negatives. Ultimately, staying socially connected can help to bring meaning to our lives. Although this can be challenging in a complex world, research proves that seeing more people and enjoying quality interactions, can boost both our physical and mental health.
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