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Connection this Christmas

Christmas is often a time for catching up with family and friends. Indeed the benefits associated with most organised religion is the sense of community and meaning. In one of my recent blog post I touched on some research indicating the importance of connecting with nature and its part in maintaining optimal health. In this post I want to focus on connecting with community and why this has an important effect on your wellbeing.

We evolved to connect

By our very nature we are social creatures. Throughout the ages our survival has depended on our ability to live and work with others. As Dr Craig Hassad states in his book ‘The Essence of Health,’ “connectedness is … deeply etched into our natures genetically, psychologically, socially and behaviourly.”

Indeed, we owe our very existence as a species to the fact that early hunter gatherer communities learned how to co-operate. They shared food, looked after the sick and managed threats together. Against all odds humanity survived, mainly due to the dense web of social contacts and the vast number of reciprocal commitments they maintain.

Being lost or isolated from the group for a protracted period meant you would be in terrible danger. You would be vulnerable to predators, if you got sick nobody would nurse you, and the rest of the tribe was also vulnerable without you. Every human instinct is honed not for life on your own, but for life in a tribe. Our brains and nervous system are hard wired to maintain social bonds.

It’s no wonder we feel anxious and distressed when faced with social isolation. It’s an urgent signal from our body and brain to get back to the group.

Ultimately, we have strong impulses in favour of connection. Loneliness is an adverse state that motivates us to reconnect. Social isolation can be marked by objective factors that include living alone, having few social network ties and infrequent social contact. Where loneliness on the other hand is subjective. It’s an unpleasant set of feelings that occur when an individual’s intimate and social needs are not adequately met.

Indeed, evolution has shaped us not only to feel bad in isolation but also to feel insecure if our intimate and social needs are not being adequately met. Being socially isolated is stressful and this is shown in elevated stress hormones such as adrenalin and cortisol. The result is compromised immune function, and deterioration of other aspects of brain and body.

Loneliness- has become public health priority. It’s associated with Increased risk of heart disease, dementia, depression and anxiety.

A meta-analysis of longevity and social connection found:

  • Loneliness increases the likelihood of mortality by 26%

  • The degree of life shortening for loneliness is similar to mortality impact of smoking 15 cigarettes/ day and greater than the mortality impact of obesity or sedentary living.

  • Nearly 22% of the US population admit to struggling with loneliness, more than the percentage of adults who smoke or have diabetes!

  • In Australia one in four are lonely, according to the Australian Loneliness Report, released in November 2018 by Swinburne University of Technology and the Australian psychological society

Studies consistently show that when it comes to staying healthy, both physically and mentally, strong relationships are at least as important as avoiding smoking and obesity! Indeed, loneliness is now being described as the next public health epidemic!

Loneliness a modern affliction?

The ABS have published results of a general social survey where one third of Australians (33%) reported 'Always' or 'Often' feeling rushed for time. Are so many of us caught up in the narrative that our lives are too busy that we are letting our relationships slide? If this is the case, there is a cost with this miss prioritisation. We miss opportunities to connect with the people we care about most!

According to neuroscience researcher John Cacioppe, loneliness in today’s society isn’t the physical absence of other people; it’s also the sense that you are not sharing anything that matters with anyone else. To end loneliness you need to have a sense of “mutual aid and protection.” This is an interesting concept, one worth considering in the society we are faced with today.

Research by Harvard professor Robert Putman has documented over the last few decades how our families and communities are unraveling- “We do things together less than any humans who came before us.” Even eating a meal or watching TV (and screen time) are no longer done together! An interesting American study wanted to know: ‘How many people you could turn to in a crisis or when something really good happens to you?’ When they started collecting data several decades ago, the average number of close friends was three. By 2004, the most common answer was none. This when the Internet was becoming mainstream, promising connection when other forces of disconnection were reaching a crescendo.

If you are a typical westerner in the twenty-first century, you check your phone every 6.5 minutes. If you are a teenager, you send an average 100 texts a day. And 42 percent of us never turn our phones off! For many, we escape anxiety through distraction. According to Dr Hillary Cash an American psychologist specialising in Internet addiction, “our impulsive internet use is a dysfunctional attempt to try and solve the pain that we are already in, caused by feeling alone in the world.” Our obsessive use of social media is an attempt to fill a hole, that took place before anyone had a smart phone. “We are living in a culture where people are not getting the connection that they need in order to be healthy humans…. Which is face to face, where we are able to see, and touch, and smell and hear each other… We’re social creatures. We’re meant to be in connection with one another in a safe, caring way, and when it is mediated by a screen, that’s absolutely not there!” Is our loneliness related to our compulsive and excessive screen use that we are missing opportunities to make connections in person?

The Covid 19 pandemic is a case in point for the need of quality face to face interaction. Many of us who endured lockdowns and had to rely on virtual relationships, craved in person connection. The increase in mental health issues, especially in 16-24 years during this period can partly be explained by the lack of “in person” connection.

Another change in our social patterns related to the pandemic, is the increase in many sectors of the economy now working from home. Organisations are struggling to maintain a sense of community and connection, while everyone is working from home. It’s especially harder for new employees to develop relationships when working virtually.

Strategies for fighting loneliness

Evidence suggests that just like a balanced diet, we need a variety of social interactions to stay healthy and stave off loneliness. Some of those could be shallow and fleeting, others need to be lasting and more intimate. And, its more that changing the number of people we interact with. Afterall, many of us are surrounded by people but do not feel like we are connected in meaningful ways.

In his book Together- The healing power of human connections in a sometimes lonely world, Vivek H Murthy refers to 3 types of connection, whose absence can result in loneliness.

  • Intimate loneliness- When you feel like you lack a close confidant. i.e. Someone who you deeply trust and who knows you

  • Relational loneliness- When we experience the absence of friendships

  • Collective loneliness- When we don’t have the benefit of identity with a common group i.e. A tribe or community that share a common interest .

To address loneliness we need to devise strategies that cultivate the three levels of connection.

We also need to identify and acknowledge what gets in the way. Is loneliness not having the opportunity to be around others, or is it more about feeling comfortable around people and feeling yourself? Do friendships just happen? Or are they something that we have to cultivate, putting in work to create social connection?

Tips for creating connection

There are many ways we can experience the benefits (physical, mental and emotional) of social connectedness and being part of a community. For many of us our workplaces and immediate family and social circle provide our main source of interaction. While these relationships are crucial it can also be beneficial to look beyond these and to develop new habits and activities. Examples may include connecting with others who share a hobby, joining a sports team or a group such as a book club, enrolling in a class learning something you’ve always wanted to do or engaging in voluntary work or religious/ spiritual practice with others.

So this festive season my intention is to forgo the commercial pressure to buy and give gifts, but to focus on connecting with others, face to face and sharing something that matters .J

In the New Year I will continue my exploration of connection as a pillar of health and vitality... The importance of connecting to meaning and purpose for optimum wellbeing.

PS. In February I will be launching my Being Vital, Wellness Coaching Program. This program creates a structured and supported way for you to change, so that you can focus your attention, time and energy to create new healthy habits.

Question: What are the key priorities in your life? Can you achieve them without your health and wellbeing?

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