In my last post, I discussed the importance of community and connection – relationships – to overall health and well-being. Good relationships impact our stress levels, our recovery from illness, encourage healthier behaviors and research suggests they can even support longevity.
In fact, in a study conducted at Brigham Young University in Utah, researchers found that people who have good social relationships are half less likely to die early than are more isolated people. The researcher who led the study, Julianne Holt-Lunstad, made the stunning statement that, “A lack of social relationships was equivalent to smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day.”
I find this kind of stuff fascinating, especially when I have been reading more and more lately about the “loneliness epidemic,” as it’s been called by former Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy. Even more interesting is the fact that younger people – millennials and Generation Z – may be the loneliest of all.
It’s easy to blame social media and today’s digital culture, and the fact is that these do seem to contribute to the rise in isolation. Likes on Facebook, texting and other types of messaging lack depth, and don’t serve to establish close bonds or even basic social skills. An interesting study by CIGNA Health, published in an article in USA Today (May 15, 2018) found that: Young people with the highest rates of social media use reported very similar feelings of loneliness to those who barely use it. Still, [CIGNA CEO] Cordani says, “meaningful social interaction” was seen as key to reducing isolation so more face-to-face conversations are needed.
In this age of hyper-connectedness, what gives? And, more importantly, what can we do about it? If close connection with others is such an important factor in overall wellbeing, it’s vital to individuals and society as a whole that we find answers.
An important distinction needs to be made between solitude and loneliness. Many people, including myself, enjoy times of solitude, which they find peaceful and replenishing. Loneliness, for the most part seems to be a result of the quality of one’s relationships, not necessarily the quantity. Someone with a large network of friends can feel lonelier than someone with a few close friends.
Loneliness can also be circumstantial. We may change to a new school, or move to a different city. We may have good friends that we can count on but lack a significant other. Often by identifying the type of loneliness we are feeling, we can find ways to address it.
Other types of loneliness can be harder to deal with. Not feeling close enough to others to be our real selves, feeling that we need to be perfect to fit in, are a formula for loneliness. Throw in some social media with an emphasis (at least for young women) on having to be camera-ready at all times, and pseudo friendships (how many of your “friends” do you know all that well?) and close connections can be hard to come by.
Given that our need for social connections is hard-wired into us, how can we make sure we strengthen our bonds with those around us, and keep them strong?
- Get in front of others. Literally. FaceTime or Skype are great if there are no other options, but nothing beats genuine, in-person contact. Schedule time for a coffee or a walk-and-talk with a friend, or meet for lunch. In-person contact trumps virtual when it comes to well-being.
- Get to know the people around you. Meet your neighbors, ask a co-worker or another mom to lunch, get to know your local barista by name. The more you reach out to others, the better you’ll feel, and the more likely others will reciprocate.
- Start a neighborhood walking or hiking group. Here’s where social media comes in handy. Post it on a neighborhood website, or bulletin board. Someone did this in a nearby town, and they now have a regular group of between 10-15 that shows up every Monday ready to go.
- Start a pizza night, or a soup night. Let your friends and neighbors know, supply a main dish, and ask everyone to bring a side, or drinks. If you’ve been thinking about starting a book club, now’s the time.
- A canine companion serves two purposes. Company for you and an impetus to get out of the house for a walk on a regular basis. And dogs are great conversation starters, too.
- Get involved. If you have a passion for the arts or a social cause, find out what’s available in your community to get involved with. There are literally dozens of opportunities in every community – meetups, special interest groups, classes and volunteer opportunities.
One important reason to stay connected to others is role modeling – for your children and other young people. As the digital culture continues to grow, we need to make more of an effort to stay connected to each other. And we need to model that social behavior for the next generation. If we want to impact those around us positively, we have to be the change we wish to see and there’s no better time than now.
If you have any other ideas about how to create more community, I’d love to hear them. Comment below or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.