Over the last several years, especially during the height of the pandemic, there has been a focus in workplace wellness on the impacts from loneliness and lack of social connections on health and wellbeing – and rightfully so. According to the U.S. Surgeon General, social connection can encompass the interactions, relationships, roles, and sense of connection that individuals, communities, or society may experience. Our connections with family members, friends, colleagues, and neighbors are just some of what make up social connections. Other facets of social connection include our neighborhoods, schools, workplaces, and digital platforms.
Social connection is a fundamental human need, just like the need for water, food, and shelter. When humans lack social connections and a sense of community, the associated health benefits are compromised, and can lead to poor health and reduced longevity. Research notes that social isolation increases the risk of premature death by 26%, heart disease by 29%, and stroke by 32%. It has also been associated with an increased risk for anxiety, depression, and dementia. The benefits of social connection even expand into educational achievements, satisfaction in the workplace, economic stability and growth, and overall feelings of well-being and fulfillment.
It isn’t fame, money, or power that influence our happiness, but high-quality, close relationships with family, friends, and community. One of the world’s longest studies of adult life, the Harvard Study of Adult Development, followed the participants of its study for almost 80 years, revealing that social connections are what keep people happy and healthy throughout their lives. Robert Waldinger, one of the researchers of the study, said, “loneliness kills, it’s as powerful as smoking or alcoholism.” In fact, the U.S. Surgeon General compares a lack of social connection to be as dangerous as smoking up to fifteen cigarettes a day!
So, why do social connections profoundly impact our health? Research has found social connections to influence three principal processes: biology, psychology, and behavior.
Biology: Social connection contributes to risk and protection of disease through specific biological pathways.
- Stress hormones
- Gene expressions
Psychology: Social connection creates a sense of purpose and support that may increase engagement in healthy behaviors.
Behaviors: Social connections influence social norms that communicate approval or disapproval of certain behaviors.
- Physical activity
There are several ways you can individually strengthen and foster your social connections. The CDC offers five ways of doing this:
- Establish and maintain social connections.
- Consider the support you give, receive, and have available to you.
- Strengthen the quality of social connections.
- Address barriers to social connection.
- Talk with a healthcare provider about concerns like stress, loneliness, and social isolation.
Social connections are dynamic, and it’s common to have fluctuations in your relationships and community over time. However, it’s important to evaluate your social connections and the impact they’re having on your quality of life. If you find yourself feeling disconnected for long periods of time, there’s resources that can help you feel connected again. Here’s a list to help you get started:
Your healthcare provider is another great resource that can help address your concerns and provide you with additional resources and support.
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