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What is social connection?
Social connection refers to our relationships with the people in our network.
Yet, this doesn’t reflect the quality of our relationships. Social connection is really about connectedness: the extent to which we engage with important, supportive people in our lives in ways that heighten our sense of belonging and well-being.
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Why is social connectedness important?
The need to connect with other human beings is programmed in our DNA. We are wired for social connection. Since prehistoric time, people have lived together in groups where they found protection, help, support, common identity and shared knowledge.
Throughout history, families lived under the same roof, where the young cared for infants and old, incapable to fare for themselves.
However, our gregarious behavior changed with the development of big urban centers, frequent job changes, family disintegration or physical distancing, progress of technology, hectic lifestyles and intense work schedules and demands.
We are more “connected” than ever (social media, WhatsApp, Zoom), but we lack connectedness or a sense of belonging to a group or community. Research shows that many adults feel more isolated and lonely than ever. Sadly, loneliness and isolation can create a reinforcing cycle that makes meaningful social connection and a feeling of connectedness harder to achieve. This slowly, but steadily takes a toll on our physical and mental well-being. The negative effects show up in our performance at work, in our personal lives, and in our ability to weather disruptions, uncertainty, and setbacks.
It isn’t so much the struggles with external factors that bring people down as it is the sense of facing difficulties alone versus being in it together.
- impacts our ability to be resilient in the face of uncertainty
- contributes to overall well-being and mental health
- helps sustain high performance at work
How does social connection impact physical and mental health?
Medical science has been writing for years about the importance of social interactions as a critical component for health, happiness and longevity.
The effect of social connectedness on our lives is so strong that when we feel rejected or suffer some other type of negative social interaction, our brain feels “hurt” in the same way than when we feel physical pain. Social pain is more similar to physical pain than we think.
Consider the influence of low social connection on our health:
- Chronic disease. There is consistent evidence linking the lack of social connectedness with cardiovascular disease, immune disorders, high blood pressure, cancer, suicide and early death.
- Elevated risk factors. People with weak or scarce social contacts are also more likely to suffer from high levels of stress, inflammation, and blood sugar.
- Mental health. Isolation and loneliness can also affect mental health and well-being, whereas the emotional support provided by social connections can bring meaning and purpose to life.
In contrast, high social connection and connectedness benefit our health in many ways. People who feel connected to others tend to experience better functioning physically, emotionally, and cognitively.
Research has shown that people actually perceive the world around them differently when they feel connected and supported by others. Happiness expert Shawn Achor describes research that people actually judge a hill to be 30 percent steeper if they are alone rather than with someone by their side. Challenges don’t seem quite so daunting when we feel the support of social connectedness.
How social connection can benefit your health:
- Lower levels of anxiety, stress, and depression
- Lower levels of cortisol and stronger immune system
- Less likely to experience sadness and loneliness
- Higher resilience in adverse events and situations
- Better memory and focus
- Rest and sleep better
- Better overall physical health
- Higher self-esteem and more empathy with others
- More confident, cooperative and open to trusting others
- Live longer
The strength of our close social connections--with friends, family, neighbors, coworkers--is powerful for our overall sense of happiness and well-being.
How can you improve your social connections and connectedness?
Living on a different continent and almost seven thousand miles away from my direct family, I know first-hand how important it is to cultivate a connectedness to people I can count on for listening, sharing or support or just spending time or engaging in activities together.
While deep connections with our “confidants” seem to be the most beneficial, even the more casual and informal ones can have a positive effect on our well-being. So, the important thing is to start building connections.
15 tips to improve social connection
- Start with yourself: Becoming aware of why you act and react in certain ways may be helpful for developing more healthy ways of interacting with others.
- Watch for your thoughts: Decreasing negative self-talk will help you to have a brighter outlook for life and attract people you want to interact with.
- Say “yes” more often: Participate in social events (even the online ones) or activities that interest you.
- Get outside of your house and your head: Go for a walk or run at a local park. Start talking to people--you’ll make an acquaintance and possibly a new friend.
- Be proactive: Even if you are an introvert, like me, make a list of people you care about and reach out: don´t wait for others to initiate contact.
- Be friendly at work: Work relationships can be a source of care and comradery and a place to get support when setbacks happen. If you work in a physical office, be open to chatting for a few minutes with whomever you encounter at the water cooler or coffee machine; consider making a habit of eating lunch together each week instead of working through it.
- Be present: Whenever possible, shut your computer down and meet a friend or an acquaintance for coffee or drink. Face-to-face communication, eye contact, smile, and closeness have amazing benefits.
- Stay close to your inner circle: Having a group of close friends promotes mental health and a quicker recovery from physical illness. It also could enhance your quality of life with good conversations and feeling supported and understood
- Speak regularly to immediate or extended family: These are people who in some ways know you best and often will help you in challenging times.
- Spend quality time with loved ones: We organize a weekly Zoom movie club spanning 3 generations of our extended family, where each one selects a movie that everybody has to watch with a discussion to follow.
- Prioritize social connections in your schedule: Set time each week on your calendar to connect with people you care about whether personally or electronically.
- Remember the “little things”: Sending a quick birthday note, a congratulation for a happy event, or a condolence for a loss make people know that you care about them
- Re-establish past social connections: Reliving experiences and events is a great tool to be more resilient and emotionally healthy.
- Maintain present social connections: Relationships go through periods of ups and downs; however, you can keep them alive by being more patient, less judgmental, and giving people a temporary space they need.
- Join a formal group: Consider enrolling in a new class, join a book club, volunteer, chat with or help a neighbor. If you are a foreigner living in an adopted country, join an expat group. There are plenty of them that cater to all ages and personal and professional interests.
Finally, remember that life teaches us every day that our most wonderful, inspiring, happy, funny, sad, or dreadful moments have to do with people in our lives.
What keeps us healthy, meaningful, and fulfilled in our life is not money, power, or fame, but the quality of our social ties. Making an effort to nurture and strengthen your relationships will have the most impact on your life and the biggest return in happiness.
BetterUp Fellow Coach