How Social Connection Is the Key to Long-Term Well-Being

We are by nature profoundly social creatures—neurologically wired to connect.

In his book “Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect” (Crown, 2013), distinguished psychologist and neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman, Ph.D., explores groundbreaking research revealing that our need for social connection is as basic as our need for shelter, food and water and that the pain we feel when we are rejected is as real as physical pain.

“The research my wife and I have done over the past decade shows that this response, far from being an accident, is actually profoundly important to our survival,” Lieberman explains. “Our brains evolved to experience threats to our social connections in much the same way they experience physical pain. By activating the same neural circuitry that causes us to feel physical pain, our experience of social pain helps ensure the survival of our children by helping to keep them close to their parents. The neural link between social and physical pain also ensures that staying socially connected will be a lifelong need, like food and warmth.”

As it turns out, we have an innate drive to connect with others. Our desire to belong and form relationships, as well as our ability to interpret and understand other people’s thoughts, feelings and intentions, are driven by what neuroscientists identify as the “social brain network” (the brain’s neurological hardware for social cognition). Through his research, Lieberman discovered that the social brain network overlaps much of the default mode network (the brain structure is active when we are at rest)—implying that whenever we aren’t engaged in something specific, our brain automatically defaults to social thinking as a function of survival.

A large portion of our thoughts, feelings and actions are motivated by our hard-wired desire to belong to a group, to be accepted and fit, to be in a loving relationship, and to avoid the pain of rejection and loss. Whether we like it or not, we are designed to thrive together.

Connection is vital for well-being

A growing body of research also shows that social connectedness, our relationships and sense of belonging, is inextricably linked to our overall happiness and well-being. Numerous studies found that social connection strengthens our immune system, reduces stress and anxiety, boosts self-esteem and fosters empathy, greatly improving our physical health and psychological well-being, as well as our relationships—generating a positive feedback loop of physical, emotional and social well-being.

Unfortunately, the reverse is also true. Researchers found that people who lack genuine social connectedness are more vulnerable to anxiety and depression, as well as a decline in physical health, and a higher propensity to anti-social behavior (triggering further isolation and feelings of loneliness).

John T. Cacioppo, Ph.D., the late University of Chicago social psychologist and neuroscientist and leading researcher on the effects of loneliness, warned that the health effects of social isolation are as detrimental as any physical damage to the body. According to his research, loneliness activates a “danger signal” in our brain (similar to hunger), triggering our nervous system’s stress response accompanied by all its unwanted associated side effects, including increased cortisol levels (disrupting our natural sleep patterns).

In fact, loneliness has been repeatedly linked to increased inflammation and decreased immunity, all of which in time seriously deteriorates a person’s physical health and well-being— so much so that experts are now referring to loneliness as a “silent killer.” According to the latest research presented at the 125th annual convention of the American Psychological Association, loneliness poses a possibly greater risk of premature death than obesity, and it is right up there with smoking and excessive drinking.

The rise of loneliness in the digital age

Despite our fundamental need for social connectedness (and the growing evidence that it’s necessary for our survival), in an age of instant global connection, people are reportedly feeling more isolated than ever before.

While various studies have shown that the rate of loneliness has more than doubled over the past few decades, as connections with close friends and confidants have reportedly shrunken, a new study by Cigna recently revealed that nearly half of Americans identify with feelings of loneliness. Of the 20,000 adults surveyed nationwide, 54 percent reported feeling as if no one actually knows them “well,” while approximately 40 percent reported feeling like they “lack companionship,” that their “relationships aren’t meaningful” and that they feel “isolated from others.”

Surprisingly, young people between the ages of 18 and 22 (Generation Z) scored the highest on the UCLA Loneliness Scale used for the survey, followed closely by Millennials, while seniors 72 and older scored the lowest—disproving the long-held belief that seniors are the loneliest among us. It seems that the youngest among us are taking the brunt of the impending loneliness epidemic that social psychologists are now warning us about.

Lost in translation

While technology isn’t solely to blame for the rise in reported loneliness (our increased busyness has a lot to do with it), the latest study by Brian Primack, M.D., Ph.D., and his team at the University of Pittsburg indicates that the more time we spend socializing online, the less connected we actually feel. Their research shows that communicating virtually doesn’t give us the same good feelings and health benefits as in-person connection and that those who spent the most time on social media (more than two hours a day) are twice as likely to feel socially isolated than those who spend a half-hour or less.

Meanwhile, studies also show that social media usage is actually making us less socially active (and potentially more socially awkward) in the real world—where true interpersonal connections take place—the type of connections that build meaningful relationships.

In her book “Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other” (Basic Books, 2011), MIT professor Sherry Turkle, Ph.D., warns that digital technology “can provide the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship, without the demands of intimacy.” And without the demands of intimacy, how truly connected can we feel to others?

The hard truth is that many of us would prefer to communicate and maintain friendships digitally. It’s easier. For starters, being physically present with someone requires you to be present. While face-to-face interactions take a substantial amount of work (and interpersonal skills), Turkle points out this likely makes them more rewarding. It’s time we put our phones down and start connecting with friends and loved ones in more meaningful ways.

Photo credit: Greg Raines, Unsplash