Safe to say the past few years have put a fair amount of strain on relationships, with even many good ones entering unchartered territory. More troubled ones slid into something worse. While we have finally emerged from the social darkness that came with the pandemic, a lot of us are still working on finding our footing again. It’s not unusual for patients to tell me they don’t go out as much anymore, or don’t see friends and relatives as much as they used to before COVID changed the ground rules.
While these slightly untethered feelings are fairly normal, and may be with us for a while, it’s extremely important that we work on rekindling relationships and retraining ourselves to cultivate new ones. Why? Because social interaction is one of the keys to health and longevity. Human connection enhances so many aspects of life — the sooner you get started, the better for you. Here’s a topline on the power of positive relationships, plus a few ways to upgrade yours:
Loneliness and poor relationships harm the body.
Sure, keeping to yourself won’t kill you per se, but it’s certainly not going to do you any good – quite the opposite. Though we may think we’ve grown more comfortable with less social interaction, living in isolation is not a state in which human beings thrive. Like it or not, we are social creatures – we’ve lived in groups for millions of years – and studies show that higher levels of loneliness, as well as the poor quality and quantity of social relationships, are associated with shorter lifespans. The combo’s also associated with a rather startling increase in heart attack, stroke (and even death) risk – think upwards of 30% higher — so, you’d be wise to aim to keep loneliness at bay. The physical downsides associated with loneliness and poor relationships boost risk for heart disease and inflammation, as well as susceptible to viral infection. The real eye opener is the role loneliness plays in cognitive decline, according to a three-year study that found that loneliness was significantly associated with decreased cognitive function over time. Disconnection does your body and brain no favors so, in a nutshell, don’t hesitate to ‘reach out’ to help support your health.
Poor relationships hurt your brain too.
It’s not just loneliness and social isolation that can cause trouble. Poor quality relationships are also big health underminers. The best remedy is, whenever and wherever practicable, withdraw your energy from these toxic relationships and spend more time building up the positive ones. The sad truth is that relationships defined by interminable drama and conflicts that never seem to get resolved, be it with family, friends or neighbors, all can add a boat load of stress to daily life. That chronic stress can have a significant impact not only on virtually every aspect of physical health but on mental and neurological health as well. For example, one study found that higher levels of negative social exchanges were closely correlated with weakened immunity and a higher number of health problems. So, if you’ve got a few lousy relationships left in your life, now’s the time to start considering an exit strategy, assuming your goal is a longer, healthier life – and brain.
Connection is essential to emotional health.
It seems almost too obvious to say it, but lack of meaningful social connection is bad for our emotional health. After a while, you can fall into a mindset where the people you know can seem simply not worth the trouble or even threatening – potential sources of rejection — instead of the way out of loneliness. For some, social isolation makes itself felt indirectly when it helps drive harmful behaviors like alcohol or drug abuse, while others may find themselves at higher risk for depression particularly in middle age and beyond. In fact, five years ago the British government decided that social isolation was a significant health issue and they implemented a national program to begin to combat it. I’d say they had the right idea.
Connection can slow your aging roll.
Want to age well and live longer? Take your cues from the areas around the world known as “blue zones” – i.e., Okinawa, Japan; Sardinia, Italy; Greece, etc. – all of which are home to a considerably higher-than-average number of people who live especially long and healthy lives, remaining vibrant and active well into their 90s and beyond. How are they defying the aging odds? It’s believed that their lives of significantly less social isolation help keep the spring in their step well beyond what their non-blue zone colleagues experience. Virtually all of the Blue Zone super-agers have strong social networks that enable them to engage frequently with their communities, families and friends – and stay connected.
You need people, and they need you.
OK, so, being disconnected is bad for the heart, brain and immunity, not to mention your emotional well-being. But what if you’re not naturally outgoing or find it tough to make new friends? Well, if it’s any consolation, you’re not alone. According to one survey, roughly 49% of Americans report that they have just three or fewer close friends, while roughly 12% say they don’t have any close friends at all. As for best friends, roughly 40% of the respondents reported not having one. Small wonder we may be feeling adrift. Between long hours at the office (or the home office), long commutes, and more time spent on family obligations, a lot of us are left without much time to cultivate relationships outside of our front doors. So, the onus is on us to fight back, for any number of reasons, including reclaiming our health.
Connecting is easier than you think.
When working on making connections both old and new, remember that Rome wasn’t built in a day, and the goal isn’t necessarily to pack your calendar with dinner dates for the next 2 months. Keep it simple with maybe just one social engagement a week, or more if you’re comfortable with that. And keep in mind, social connection isn’t just about existing relationships, but also about creating a sense of connectedness to your community, and the world around you. How to do that? Here are a few ways to get into a more connected groove, whether you’re a life-of-the-party extrovert, or a mild-mannered introvert:
- Be of service to others – volunteering at a food bank or animal shelter or serving meals at a soup kitchen connects you with others as well as your sense of compassion and community, while also gifting you with sense of purpose, belonging and fewer pangs of loneliness.
- Reach out – as in, make a little effort to tend your existing relationship garden. Something as simple as a weekly check-in phone call, a coffee date or a walk in the park can help rebuild connection after our long pandemic ‘time-out’.
- Get into a group groove – instead of pursuing solo activities, think group activities, such as in-person hiking clubs, gardening clubs, book clubs, knitting groups, even a silent meditation group — anything that gets you into a real, shared experience, can open the door to meeting new, like-minded people who in time, may become friends
- Lean on a four-legged friend – and take them to the local dog run, where you’re almost guaranteed to meet fellow dog lovers, who are happy to shoot the breeze with other ‘dog people.’
- Spread kindness – even it’s just an earnest ‘thank you’ to the person who made your coffee or the person driving your kid’s school bus, with just a simple moment of connection, you can create a ripple effect of positive energy that radiates throughout your community.
Some connections are better than others.
As you connect and reconnect with others, remember that though social connection is a great boost for your health, not every relationship will be a healthy one, so recognize those relationships that are the keepers – the ones that support your spirit and make you feel good. Cultivate them and hold them dear, and let the negative ones go.