Feeling lonely or isolated? You’re not alone. During the first year or so of the pandemic, social isolation was practically the only protection we had. It surely saved lives but now, as life returns to normal-ish, it’s time to focus on re-connecting (safely, of course). Why bother to make a special effort? Well, not only does social connection just feel better than the alternative, it’s a foundational health practice, as essential as good sleep, healthy food, movement and stress reduction. If perhaps you’ve grown a bit too comfortable not spending much time with others, here’s why reconnecting matters so much, plus a few thoughts on what you can do to get back into a more social, and health-supportive, groove:
Poor social connection erodes physical health.
OK, first things first: A lack of social connection, whether by choice or not, does a number on physical health. In fact, studies show that higher levels of loneliness, as well as a poor quality and quantity of social relationships, are associated with shorter lifespans. What’s more, the Journal of the American Heart Association reports that social isolation and loneliness are associated with about a 30% increased risk of heart attack or stroke, or death, a rather startling statistic. Add to that a higher risk for heart disease, chronic inflammation, cancer and cognitive decline, even an increased susceptibly to viral infection — and the physical downsides associated with loneliness really start to add up. So, if over the past few years, you’ve retreated somewhat from family, friends and colleagues and you haven’t quite found your way back, I urge you to make the effort to turn the volume back up on those relationships (assuming they were healthy ones). Try to expand your ‘tribe’ by cultivating new connections as well. Start now. A tremendous amount of your physical health is riding on it.
Social isolation undermines mental health.
As you might guess, social isolation is hard on mental health too. As humans, we truly need to connect with one another, not only to survive at a basic level but also to thrive emotionally and mentally, no matter how self-sufficient we may think we are. Trouble is, with a lack of social connection often comes increased feelings of loneliness and increased risk for depression, particularly in middle-aged and older adults. In the U.K., the high correlation between loneliness and depression was concerning enough that in 2018, the British Government declared social isolation a national health issue and introduced a national program for tackling loneliness.
It should also be noted that while the occasional short bouts of social isolation or loneliness can impact health, the longer those episodes last, the greater the harm to the brain, increasing the risk of more rapid memory decline, according to a University of Michigan School of Public Health study. Social isolation’s impact may also reveal itself via other mental health issues like alcohol or drug abuse; eating disorders; increased anxiety levels; reduced ability to deal with stress; impaired judgment or poor decision-making; anti-social behaviors; memory or learning difficulties. Simply put, the impact of social isolation on mental health is far-reaching, and none of it is good.
Think of social isolation and social connection as a conscious choice.
While the negative news about social isolation is considerable, the good news is, the world is opening back up again, so most of us no longer need to be as physical distanced as we were even just a few months ago. Make cultivating and growing your friend network a conscious choice and an essential one – all you need do is make room on your calendar.
But, whereas overstuffed schedules used to be the norm, you may well want to take it slow for now. And re-entry is just easier for some than others. Don’t feel you have to go overboard to make up for lost time but do have a strategy. For example, commit to planning just one social event each week. Especially if you need some time to readjust to a normal social life, that may be plenty. So, make a date with your dear ones, but keep it simple. Think about a walk around the neighborhood, an al fresco lunch on a park bench, or a scenic drive, instead of orchestra seats to a sold-out show. If you have older relatives, make time for a weekly check-in phone chat or arrange an occasional in-person visit to help buoy their spirits as well as your own. Gather outside if that makes them (or you) feel more comfortable.
Grow your social circle.
In the areas around the world known as “blue zones” – think Okinawa, Japan; Sardinia, Italy; Nicoya, Costa Rica; Icaria, Greece – a considerably higher-than-average number of people live especially long and healthy lives, remaining vibrant and active well into their 90s and beyond. One reason they’re defying the odds? Considerably less social isolation. Virtually all of these super-agers have strong social networks that enable them to engage frequently with their communities, families and friends.
What’s the takeaway for you? Work on building and cultivating your tribe! Granted, making new friends as an adult can be a bit daunting. It takes time, attention, and shared experiences to make it happen. So, as you go about your day, be aware when you meet new people you like. Be open to the idea of hanging out with them, and be patient. Focus on developing relationships with can-do, positive people who inspire and motivate you. In case you need one more reason to make the effort to grow your circle? Studies show that people age more rapidly and have a greater dementia risk when they don’t have some version of a family or a tribe that’s got their back. Another tip from a spry 94-year old friend who has outlived many of her peers? She says, “once you hit 50 or 60, be sure to make friendships with younger people too!”
Connect with your community.
After two years of isolated living, chances are, your social skills to connect with the world beyond your front door may be a bit rusty. One easy way to get back into a groove is to be of service, to find some way, however small, to give to others. Though it may sound cliché, lending your skills or support to a cause that is meaningful to you will boost feelings of connection with your community and, really, with all humankind, while also taming feelings of loneliness.
If this kind of social interaction feels awkward to you at first, then just start with a small commitment that will enable you to step out of your house and your head, perhaps just once a week. As you get more comfortable (and connected!), you can always step up your involvement.
Where to start? Try volunteering at an animal shelter; lend a hand to cleanup efforts at a local park; help distribute donations at the local food pantry; or find some other activity that speaks to you. It all encourages natural, positive human interaction. What’s more, when you give of yourself with no expectation of anything in return, you experience the “helper’s high”— the pleasure and reward centers of your brain light up, as if you were on the receiving end of the good deed. Your cortisol and blood pressure levels drop, protecting your cardiovascular system, while oxytocin and serotonin, the brain chemicals associated with love and bonding, go up. In short, everybody wins!
Connect with ubuntu – and spread good feeling.
If you feel your post-pandemic fuse is a still too short to let you return to a deeply engaged social life – everyone evolves at a different pace – then keep it light and causal until you’re ready to give more of yourself. So, the next time you start to feel negative stuff bubbling up, instead of flipping off the guy who cut you off, flip the script and de-escalate. Pause for a second and remind yourself to connect with the African spiritual practice of ‘ubuntu,’ which basically means: what makes us human is the humanity we show each other. So let that other driver cut in front of you with a smile and cheery wave. Offer a meaningful “thank you” to the bus driver, the delivery person at your door, the barista making your coffee. Commit to leaving a trail of kindness in your wake.
Small acts of kindness are more than just a boon to the recipient—they create momentary connection between you and the world at large, an instant of intimacy that supports you while bestowing compassion on others. Ubuntu helps build bridges between people instead of chasms, so practice it daily, and let the ripple effect of those small moments radiate out into the world – and improve our collective health in the bargain.