By Rev. Dr. Ron Barnes, LSW, Executive Director and Family Counselor
“Living with air pollution increases your odds of dying early by 5%.
Living with obesity, 20%. Excessive drinking, 30%.
And living with loneliness? It increases our odds of dying early by 45%.”
(Brené Brown, 2017, based on a meta-analysis of studies by Holt-Lunstad, Smith and Layton)
I recently went to the hospital for an MRI. I don’t like enclosed spaces, so I was already feeling stressed about the experience.
As I approached the reception desk, I was hoping for a warm greeting from a friendly and reassuring face to help calm my nerves. Instead, I saw a note directing me to an electronic kiosk to sign in.
I completed the check-in process and found a place to sit. For the next several minutes, I waited anxiously.
In that moment of vulnerability, I was craving interaction and social connection with real people. Instead, the lack of human-to-human contact left me feeling empty inside.
I started to wonder how many people are feeling this same kind of emptiness.
Are You *Actually* Socially Connected?
With all of the supposed “networks” and “connections” we have today, we are living in a more distant and disconnected world than ever before. Increasingly, the interpersonal experiences we need as humans are being replaced by technology and automation. For example, local bank branches were once hubs for neighborhood social encounters. Now much of the banking business is automated and online. Groceries, products and take-out orders are being delivered straight to our doors. “Distance learning” is increasing in popularity. Even workplaces are changing to further embrace the word “remote.”
I have been counseling clients in person, face-to-face in my office for more than three decades. Recently, I’ve tried to “connect” with clients virtually – over a computer screen with cameras and microphones. These telehealth counseling sessions feel less warm and less relational. Telehealth should not be discredited; it provides an avenue for clients to receive safe and convenient services. There is just a personal component missing.
Why Do Social Connections Matter?
Before the COVID-19 pandemic imposed strict barriers on social interactions, a 2018 national survey by Cigna found almost 50% of U.S. adults were feeling lonely sometimes or always. Additionally, 40% were feeling isolated and that their relationships weren’t always meaningful.
I can only imagine what these numbers look like now.
Loneliness and isolation can have devastating consequences in our lives. In fact, they could kill us. In its review of several research studies, the American Psychological Association found the absence of social connections can:
- Lead to depression, poor sleep quality, cognitive decline, reduced cardiovascular function, reduced immunity and reduced self-control.
- Increase your risk of stroke, cardiovascular disease and dementia.
- Increase your health risks about the same amount as smoking 15 cigarettes a day or having alcohol use disorder.
- Increase your risk of premature death from every cause.
Conversely, when you are actively connecting with friends, family members and others you are making a healthy lifestyle choice that can help you live better and longer. According to Psychology Today, you can extend your life expectancy, enjoy improved physical and mental health and lower your risk of medical problems.
How Can You Become More Social?
How can you become more social?
Whether you are introverted or extroverted, it is important to be socially connected. In fact, human-to-human interactions are a basic human need.
Even if being social doesn’t come naturally to you and takes a little bit more of your energy, try to find ways to step outside of your comfort zone to interact with others. You don’t have to be outgoing to develop meaningful social connections.
Here are some easy ways to build social encounters into your life:
- Connect with a faith community: Despite the widespread adoption of virtual church, almost all churchgoers plan to return to in-person religious gatherings as much as or even more than before. This is according to a survey from the Pew Research Center.
Connecting and being present in others’ lives feels good and enriches our own lives. Faith communities can be very welcoming and offer ongoing opportunities to connect outside of weekly services. Where else will people go out of their way to greet you and introduce themselves with no strings attached? Search for faith communities in your area and start visiting to find the right fit.
Tip: You may have to attend more than once to get a good feel for the culture.
- Find a Club or Group that suits You: The easiest way to connect with others is through shared interests and experiences. This is why support groups are so popular and encouraged in the mental health field.
Do you like art? How about gardening? Are sports your passion? Do you wish you could help others through volunteerism or fundraising? It’s important to know there are others like you. The best way to find them is by joining a group or club. Start by searching for some in your area (MeetUp is a great resource) and reach out to the contact person to learn more.
Tip: If there is a fee to participate or join, try requesting a free meeting/trial period to determine if it’s the right fit for you.
- Eat lunch with others: If you work in an office setting or have friends or colleagues nearby, then commit time every day or at least once per week to eating together. The lunch room or break room is likely just a few steps away, and it’s a great place to find community and build connections with co-workers.
A 2015 Cornell University study of firefighters found groups who eat meals together perform better than those who don’t. The reason why, the researcher writes, is “eating together is a more intimate act than looking over an Excel spreadsheet together.” The tradition serves as “a kind of social glue.”
Tip: Make sure your new lunch mates are positive people with healthy opinions before committing to this strategy long term. Negativity and toxic perspectives can leave you feeling worse.
- For parents: Parents can socialize while their children play. Whether you are in your own neighborhood or on the sidelines at a sports practice/game, you will have ample opportunity to meet other parents. You may be spending lots and lots of time with these same parents in the coming years.
A 2018 USA Today op-ed series allowed moms to share their experiences on having “parent friends.” In addition to the social benefits of these relationships, parent friends can make you feel supported in your parenting role and provide valuable parenting advice.
Tip: Make sure your kids are on good terms before diving too deeply into a parent friendship. This helps prevent potentially awkward moments and confrontations in the future.
It’s not enough just to be physically present in these settings. Here are few simple steps you can follow to be accepted and benefit from these social encounters:
- Introduce yourself: When meeting new people, the best way to break the ice is to introduce yourself.
- Be present in the moment: Put away your phone, make regular eye contact when others are speaking, focus on listening and make sure your facial expressions and body language show you are interested and engaged.
- Contribute: There’s no need to be afraid of reacting to what’s going on. Share your own relevant thoughts and insights every now and then.
- Leave with grace: Don’t leave without saying anything. A simple “thank you,” “nice meeting you” or “great to see you” shows you care and want to be connected.
Are you or is someone you know battling loneliness, isolation, social anxiety or social fears? The licensed and caring family counselors at Anchorpoint Counseling Ministry are here to help you build confidence and learn skills while supporting and guiding you every step of the way.