As we are being snowed in with the ‘Beast from the East’ and Storm Emma we are all hearing of communities looking out for each other.  So why do we worry about each other?

We all know the health basics: eat fruits and vegetables, exercise, and get enough rest and sleep. It appears though, from psychological perspective, that these are not enough for us to survive. Being ‘social beings’, we also need to establish social connections. That is, make friends with others.

Plenty of studies tell us that social connection plays a significant role in our physical and mental health. People who have satisfying relationships have been shown to be happier and have fewer health problems. What’s more they tend to have longer lifespan than their less social peers, according to the 2010 study published in the Harvard Women’s Health Watch. Another study, carried out by Steve Cole of Carnegie Mellon University showed that the genes impacted by social connection also code for immune function and inflammation, which helps people recover from illness faster and lengthen their life. What’s more, friendly individuals are at a lower risk of anxiety disorder and depression, reports a 2001 study which appeared in the Journal of Counselling Psychology. They also have higher self-esteem, and are more empathic, trusting and cooperative to others, which in turn further deepen their social connections.

Are we wired to be social?

The question is – does our ability to connect with others simply a product of human intelligence or is it something that has been hardwired in our brain for so long? In his article posted on Psychology Today, Matthew D. Lieberman, Ph.D., a Professor of Psychology, Psychiatry and Biobehavioural Sciences at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), explains:

“If social intelligence were a random application of our general intelligence, we would expect to see the same brain regions associated with both kinds of intelligence. That would be a sensible story if it were true, but it isn’t. The brain regions reliably associated with general intelligence and its related cognitive abilities, like working memory and reasoning, tend to be on the outer (or lateral) surface of the brain, whereas thinking about other people and oneself utilizes mostly medial (or midline) regions of the brain.”

“Moreover, neural networks that support social and non-social thinking often work at cross-purposes—much like the two ends of a neural seesaw. If we look at the brain when a person isn’t being asked to do anything in particular, we see the social cognition network turned on.”

By taking a closer look at the human evolution, we will see that back in the old age, our ancestors benefited from making alliances with other people. Those who lived alone tend to die earlier, not from diseases but from wild animals. On the other hand, those who lived in groups had greater odds of survival. The logic is clear. Someone could alert the others if there’s a predator, whilst others can get ready to attack.  From here, our need for social connection appears to have rooted from our ‘survival instincts’. In the modern times, whilst there are no more predators to be afraid of, we seek social connection to find people to depend on more than anyone in the world, disclose our innermost secrets and vulnerabilities, and obtain support.

But despite its importance to our health and survival, sociological research suggests that social connectedness is declining at an alarming rate, suggests a study by the University of Arizona and Duke University. This may explain why there’s an increase in loneliness, isolation and alienation as reported by several studies. In Britain, experts believe that the country may be suffering from ‘loneliness epidemic’. According to the charity Campaign to End Loneliness, the number of people who described themselves as ‘sometimes healthy’ has increased by 20 per cent, whilst 10 per cent of adults over 65 are ‘chronically lonely’.

Furthermore, the rise in the rates of depression and stress-related chronic conditions, according to the University College London, could be blamed to the physical and social lack of contact with others. In this study, the researchers followed 6,500 British people over 50 from year 2004 to 2012. They found that the most socially isolated of this group were 26 per cent more likely to die during the study period than those with active social lives. The results were the same even after taking into account other risk factors like mortality, age and illness.

More recently, a study by the University of Michigan suggests that ‘social rejection’ activates same areas of the brain that are stimulated when we experience physical pain. Another research by the University of California Los Angeles revealed that stress due to conflicts in relationship results to increased inflammation levels in the body.

Cultivating Friendships

As all this overwhelming body of research suggests, we should give extra efforts establishing social connections. But are you too shy to meet people? Hush and don’t worry. The interesting fact is that you don’t need too many friends. A few would be okay as long as you have quality relationships with them. Just because one of your friends on Facebook has over 1,000 ‘friends’ doesn’t mean he or she is bound to experience the great benefits of social connection. In fact, studies suggest that social media could be making us feel more socially isolated – opposite of what it should be doing. One example is the study by Ethan Kross of the University of Michigan. He found that rather than making us feel connected, social media interaction contributes to loneliness and reduces overall life-satisfaction.

Here’s the other good news – even if you are an introvert or a loner, you still can reap the benefits of social connectedness! You ask, how’s that possible? Basically, a sense of connection is internal. Researchers agree that the health benefits of social connectedness are linked to your subjective sense of connection. That means if you ‘feel’ connected to others deep inside; you are bound to experience the amazing rewards of social connection. Nevertheless, you still want to consider meeting new people and establishing positive friendships. It really is worth trying. And if you are already ‘blessed’ with good friends, take time to thank them. Invite them for a cup of coffee or a dinner perhaps. It’s not enough that you chat and text. Personal interactions have greater impact on the quality of your social relationships.  So maybe go outside, knock on a neighbour’s door and see if they are OK…. and see where it leads.


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