Why Social Connections are Vital
By Dr. Lisa Cowley and Victor Westgate

Do you know the key to a long and happy life? According to findings from a landmark study from the Harvard Study of Adult Development, which has been tracking participants for the last eighty years, more than money or fame, close relationships keep people happy and healthy and are a better predictor of longevity than social class, IQ, and good genes. Lifestyle habits such as avoiding cigarettes, alcohol and junk food are also important for a healthy life. However, it has been found that having a social network is the most important factor in promoting longevity.

If social connectivity is vital, how are we faring? According to Dr. Vivek H. Murthy, Surgeon General of the United States, loneliness and isolation is experienced in about one in two adults which constitutes an epidemic. The hhs.gov site defines loneliness as “a subjective distressing experience from perceived isolation or inadequate meaningful connections where inadequate refers to the discrepancy or unmet need between an individual’s preferred and actual experience.” Loneliness and being alone are different, in that you can feel lonely in a crowd and much less lonely being with yourself. Loneliness is more about the perceived experience of emotional and social isolation.

We may be creating a society with more lonely people coming down the pike.  There is data to suggest that younger people report feeling lonelier than their Gen X and baby boomer counterparts. Some studies point to social media and the internet as potential reasons for younger people feeling lonely. The time spent in person with friends has reduced by seventy percent in the last two decades for those between the ages of fifteen to twenty-four years old. Loneliness can occur at different points in life but may be exacerbated with certain life events that unfold. Suffering from a physical illness or disability that is isolating you from your normal activities and interactions can bring on loneliness.  With retirement from your career there may be a sense of loneliness especially if you have had a difficult time managing social interactions outside work before retirement. Breaking up from a relationship, moving towns or losing a friend or loved one can impact social connectedness and promote transient feelings of loneliness.

Social connection is more than a personal issue. The Surgeon General is so concerned that he has established a national strategy to advance social connection with six pillars outlined. One pillar outlined is the structural and social characteristics of a community which can produce the settings in which an individual can build and maintain social networks. One aspect that we liked when choosing Warren, Rhode Island as our new hometown a year and a half ago, was that our single-family home is situated in a friendly neighborhood that feels more like a “pocket neighborhood.” The common ground that is characteristic to this type of neighborhood is a small beach and a park- a short walk away- where we have met many people of all different ages and interests. If you cannot up and move to a new community that will naturally enhance social connectivity, what are other action steps you can take?

  1. If you feel your loneliness is paralyzing you from taking any action steps seek out a trained counselor or therapist to help you.
  2. Take stock of your current relationships High-conflict partnerships or an emotionally absent partner can make you feel lonelier. If you feel as though your friends and family are unavailable to emotionally support you, it may be time to cultivate a new tribe, even if that creates a temporary disruption.
  3. Move out of your comfort zone Go out of your way to connect with people. Even saying hello to a stranger, in the coffee shop, or walking down your street can lift your spirit. There is an app called longwalks.com that connects people who share similar interests.
  4. Spend time with animals As an owner of a dog, we can attest to the power of love we feel for our dog and most the time that is reciprocated. If you don’t have a pet and don’t want the responsibility of owning one, there are dog parks or paths that owners walk their dogs. Ask first as most pet owners will let you pet their dog. In addition to a wag of a tail you may even discover a new animal loving friend.
  5. Be your own best friend Journal writing can help shed some light on what roadblocks you may be putting up that are not helping you to feel more connected to others.  Prompts may include:
    • What am I feeling right now?
    • What can I do to make myself feel better?
    • What am I learning about myself at this time?
  6. Meditate It may seem that meditation may foster social isolation however developing a more spiritual connection within yourself can help you feel less lonely. Remember when we first defined loneliness as the perceived feeling of unmet meaningful connections with others? Sitting with yourself, with eyes closed, deep breathing and meditating can help cultivate a relationship with your essential spiritual nature. Experiencing a daily practice of meditation fosters a relationship with the Divine. This deep knowing that you are a spiritual being having a human experience, helps you connect to that part of yourself that is so deep, it can sustain you even in times of loneliness.

Today we invite you to go beyond what is in your comfort zone and reach into yourself and love yourself more deeply. Honor your feelings of isolation and lack of social connectivity but take action. Reach outward to someone in need. Smile and ask a neighbor how they are doing, mail a love note to someone who is going through a difficult time, pick up the phone and call a family member you have been avoiding. Remember that small action steps are an investment in creating a long, healthy and happy life.


About the Authors

Dr. Lisa Cowley, a holistic chiropractor and nutritional counselor of 25 years, along with her husband Victor Westgate, a high school educator of 34 years, are authors of Pack Lightly: Making Sense of the Second Half of Your Life. You can learn more at: www.joyinaging.com


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