The connections that you have with other people may just be the key to a long and healthy life. A neuroscientist, John Cacioppo, at the University of Chicago and co-author of a new book called “Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection” has done research on how our relationships can affect our physical health.
He worked on a study to try to understand how important our social interactions are to our biology. We know that in early human history, our survival demanded the protection of families. Back then, isolation usually meant death. Loneliness is a painful feeling that urges us to reconnect with others.
In the study, loneliness was found to affect stress hormones, immune function and cardiovascular function. Lonely adults tend to drink more alcohol and exercise less than those who are not lonely. They usually have a diet that is higher in fat, their sleep is not as solid, and they tend to be more tired during the day. Also, loneliness can disrupt the regulation of cellular processes deep inside the body, which can make the body more vulnerable to premature aging.
Unfortunately, the answer is not as simple as having lots of people around us. Some people can be surrounded by lots of people but feel completely alone, because they don’t have any strong connections. So, in human beings, feeling isolated is more serious than physical isolation.
Cacioppo says that there are things we can do to combat our feelings of loneliness such as making positive everyday comments to people such as “It’s a beautiful day isn’t it!?” Comments like these can usually bring us a friendly response that makes us feel good.
He also says that we don’t have to be liked by everyone to not feel lonely. One to three good friend is all some of us really need. Having 5000 friends on Facebook is not a guarantee that you will not be lonely. He says that virtual connections such as Facebook can sometimes even make you lonelier, unless of course it is your only means of connecting due to being disabled.
John Cacioppo says there are three main ways that we are linked with each other. First of all, people need to be together up close and personal. This is usually seen in marriage, but people who don’t marry can still find connections in other ways. Secondly, we have a strong desire for a broader group of friends and family, but we all know that this is often a bittersweet endearment. And thirdly, there is belonging to a bigger group. This may be why people who go to church regularly tend to live longer. They feel in touch with the group, the church and to God.
Sadly, a large number of us fail to consider the collective part of social connection until there is an event or tragedy such as 9-11, when we feel more like we are part of something huge or magnificent.