“‘Why did you do all this for me?’ he asked. ‘I don’t deserve it. I’ve never done anything for you.’ ‘You have been my friend,’ replied Charlotte. ‘That in itself is a tremendous thing.’”
– Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White
Social connectedness is increasingly being recognized as a significant factor in overall wellness, with large benefits for our mental and physical health, for individuals and for communities. It has even been associated with a longer life.
We saw how disruptions in social connectedness during the COVID-19 pandemic adversely impacted mental health and community health. This has been true for people of all ages, children to seniors.
Human brains are hard-wired to be social. For good reason! Throughout human evolution, cooperation with others has been essential to our survival (and thriving). Procreation itself requires finding a mate. From the very start of life, a human baby cannot survive without a caretaker for the first few years. Also, there is safety in numbers when facing predators. And being a part of a family group enables child-rearing while also engaging in other activities necessary for survival, such as hunting for food. Even the basic function of sleep can depend on being part of a group; it may be safe to sleep only when being protected by others.
Cooperation towards a common goal (such as the best ways to procure food, water, and shelter) has allowed for our survival as a species. Social actions such as sharing resources and communicating knowledge to the next generations are vital.
Our brain is a social brain, wired to form relationships with others. Because social bonds are key to human survival, human brains have evolved to be adept at recognizing social signals and at verbal communication. From a very young age, we are especially attuned to the human voice and face. Human children are intuitively gifted at imitation (verbal and facial expression), responding to social cues, and learning language.
There is speculation that the relatively large human brain size may be related to our capacity to navigate more complex social networks.
Some of these capacities (along with a craving for relationships) are encoded in the evolutionarily oldest parts of our brain. For example, in the limbic system, functions such as social awareness, reward-seeking, and emotional intensity are wired together. Therefore, in this area of the brain, social stimulation is closely tied to emotional responses. Social interactions can trigger intense feelings, including through the release of dopamine (the “pleasure hormone”). We are then primed to seek out further social stimulation. Conversely, the emotional pain of rejection and exclusion can be so intense that it physically hurts.
The fascinating theory of “limbic resonance” suggests that our brain circuitry can synchronize with another person in a way that promotes empathy and deep connection. (This process could also amplify negative emotions such as fear or anger).
The CDC defines social connectedness as “the degree to which people have and perceive a desired number, quality and diversity of relationships that create a sense of belonging, and being cared for, valued, and supported.”
Social isolation is not the same thing as loneliness. Even introverts need social connection. According to the CDC:
Social isolation is the lack of relationships with others and little to no social support or contact. It is associated with risk even if people don’t feel lonely.
Loneliness is feeling alone or disconnected from others. It is feeling like you do not have meaningful or close relationships or a sense of belonging. It reflects the difference between a person’s actual and desired level of connection. This means that even a person with a lot of friends can feel lonely.
On a personal level, social connectedness is associated with substantial mental health benefits. In fact, a study published in 2020 from researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital found the presence of “trusted social connections” and “frequent social interactions” to be some of the strongest protective factors against depression.
Other benefits include:
Reduced substance abuse
Reduced suicidal thinking
Improved ability to cope with stress
Making better choices
Social bonding may release neurotransmitters that promote sleep and self-compassion
Social isolation also takes a physical toll, including higher risk of:
Heart disease (increased by about 30%)
Diabetes type 2
Stroke (increased by about 30%)
Dementia (increased by 50%)
Increased levels of inflammation
Possibly a weaker immune system.
Connecting with others helps people with chronic health conditions and disabilities by decreasing aloneness, gaining a sense of community, and an improved capacity to recognize and build on their strengths.
Social connectedness among citizens also strengthens communities by building overall trust, bridging differences, improving positive engagement and problem-solving, increasing sense of belonging, and promoting volunteerism. Communities thereby become more resilient.
Making friends and creating social connections takes some time and conscious effort, and sustaining relationships requires attention and care. True friendship requires reciprocity and some degree of patience and tolerance. It’s helpful to diversify your social circle, to connect with people who play different roles your life: family, neighbors, co-workers, community organizations (volunteering, religious etc.), and shared hobbies. A mix is good: some relationships that are more intimate, some more casual, some can be based around an interest or activity, etc. There is no magic number of relationships. What matters is the quality and diversity of relationships, and individual needs and preferences.
A good way to start is by reaching out to help others, either informally or through structured volunteer opportunities. Even when people don’t feel they have the energy or motivation to be social, they often experience improved energy, optimism, and mood afterwards. It becomes a positive feedback cycle.
Friendship: it doesn’t cost money and has few-to-no side-effects. And the pay-off: improved self-esteem, enjoyment of life, a sense of belonging, better health, and sense of overall wellness.