Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Social Isolation Will Kill You

Eat organic?  Exercise regularly?  Are you mindful and present?  You may be healthy -- or you may not be as healthy as you think.  Are you lonely?  If so, you're among a growing percentage of our population.  According to a recent study of people 45 years old and older, more than 40% of us are lonely, up over the past 20 years.  What's more is that loneliness impacts mortality as much as obesity or a lack of physical activity, yet not enough of us are dedicating our time to preventing it.  PLOS Medicine published an article showing that "individuals with adequate social relationships have a 50% greater likelihood of survival compared to those with poor or insufficient social relationships. The magnitude of this effect is comparable with quitting smoking and it exceeds many well-known risk factors for mortality (e.g., obesity, physical inactivity)."

If you're spending hours each week at the farmers' market or in the garden to feed yourself good food, or logging in time at the gym, you need to be spending just as much time enriching your social life and sense of community in order to gain this healthy advantage.  And, no, social media doesn't count.  Although young adults "feel" connected through social media outlets, such as Facebook, it's a deceptive illusion.  Research shows that the more time people spend on Facebook, the more lonely they truly are.  

Matthew Lieberman, social psychologist and neuroscientist, argues in his book Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect, that social connection is the very foundation for happiness and satisfaction.  In a  fascinating look at social connection published in The Atlantic, author Emily Esfahani Smith writes:

"Social connections are as important to our survival and flourishing as the need for food, safety, and shelter. But over the last fifty years, while society has been growing more and more prosperous and individualistic, our social connections have been dissolving. We volunteer less. We entertain guests at our homes less. We are getting married less. We are having fewer children. And we have fewer and fewer close friends with whom we’d share the intimate details of our lives. We are increasingly denying our social nature, and paying a price for it. Over the same period of time that social isolation has increased, our levels of happiness have gone down, while rates of suicide and depression have multiplied."

So how do we overcome the social isolation problem?  Our self-focused culture and media emphasis on "me time" don't help.  We need to step up, overcome apathy, and get active in our neighborhoods, communities, and towns.  Whether volunteering for a local organization, serving on a town or school council, or joining a social group, getting connected requires a small step for a big reward.  Health has many facets and it's time this one makes our to-do lists.

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