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What Research Tells Us About the Power of Social Connection

February 10, 2023 by Mari Pfingston-Bigelow


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What Research Tells Us About the Power of Social Connection

What Research Tells Us About the Power of Social Connection

What Research Tells Us About the Power of Social Connection

When you get a papercut, you head to the first-aid kit. When you have chest pains, you visit the doctor. But when you experience isolation and loneliness, there is no doctor, or certain place to go like with physical ailments. It can sometimes feel like there isn’t anywhere to go at all, which can amplify these feelings of isolation and perpetuate them. This sense of isolation creates and causes social disconnection.

Although social disconnection isn’t a medical condition that can be treated with a prescription, it can affect our mental and physical health like physical medical conditions can, and in ways that are just as important as other lifestyle choices.

Typically, it is an ongoing process to move from a state of isolation to the ongoing support of healthy relationships, but research shows us that this process is vital. Humans are made for connection, and we now know that profound changes in health and quality of life result from either the absence or presence of strong social connections.

The Effects of Social Isolation

Many know that strong social support is important for living a happy and fulfilling life, but few of us truly understand that the lack of this support can have dramatic effects. In a widely influential meta-analysis across many research studies, data on mortality was studied in relation to loneliness, social isolation, or living alone. The results show that, “low social interaction was reported to be similar to smoking 15 cigarettes a day and to being an alcoholic, to be more harmful than not exercising, and to be twice as harmful as obesity.” It’s important to note that this is independent of age, location, or initial health status. Lacking social connection and feeling socially isolated are significant predictors of premature mortality.

The Importance of Close Relationships

In one of the world’s longest studies on adult life, individuals were tracked for more than 80 years, beginning with their time as Harvard sophomores during the Great Depression. The participant’s offspring were a part of the study as well, providing information on how early life can shape health and aging over time. This study revealed many, many insights into how we experience happiness, health, and the eventual decline of aging. One of the most profound results shows that healthy social connections - even more than good genes, IQ, or social class - are the strongest predictor of living a long and happy life.

The reasons why healthy and close relationships are so vital is a widely discussed topic. We do not exist in a bubble, independent of those we are surrounded by. Our own sense of fulfillment and joy often lies within how we support and interact with others. Our relationships help to shape who we are and how we exist in the world.

Many social interactions affect us in one way or another, whether it be a shift in our mood, stress levels, ways of thinking, motivation, or even just feeling seen. Those that we are closest to affect us even more, and are important sources for emotional connection. Being able to talk through issues and process emotions are powerful ways to regulate and lower stress on a regular basis. 

Cultivating Greater Connection

If you’re looking to develop more social connection and could use support in the process, remember the following:

  • You’re not alone in feeling alone. Loneliness is a state of mind and won’t be a visitor forever. Develop a practice of daily gratitude for the good things in your life to train your brain to see beyond the negative.
  • Volunteering and being of service are powerful ways to build confidence and motivation in building connections. Check with your county or volunteermatch.org to find a service opportunity that sounds exciting and engaging to you.
  • It’s easy to overthink it if you’re not used to reaching out or initiating plans. Tools like the 5 second rule can help you get out of your head and take action. 
  • Our relationships are in a constant state of change, and close connections don’t happen overnight. Practice journaling to stay connected to yourself and to tune in to how you feel about the relationships you’re fostering.
  • The outside perspective of a professional life coach can help to clarify goals and obstacles while shifting habits and starting something new.

According to the research, we should look at relationships as being as crucial to our wellbeing as other measures of physical and mental health, such as exercise, sleep, and eating well. Connection is what we’re made for, and it’s likely the most fulfilling prescription for health and happiness that you’ll ever find.

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