You’d think we’d be more connected than ever, but even with a million ways to reach out and touch someone, social media notwithstanding, we’re more alone than ever. Sadly, new research suggests that pervasive loneliness is worse for our health than smoking. WOW. You read that right. You can die from loneliness – but read on and we’ll make sure that doesn’t happen.
Aside from making us feel miserable, what can loneliness do to our health? Researchers have been looking at this question for at least a decade now, and their findings are shocking. People who consistently feel lonely are much more likely to die early.
Researchers at Brigham Young University conducted an influential meta-analysis of literature on the subject, and found that social isolation increases our risk of death by an astounding 30%, and some estimates say that that number is closer to 60%!
Social isolation also has practical and circumstantial negative effects, but the health risk alone is worth digging a little deeper into.
We’re Social Animals in a Digital World
You’d think in an age where you can reach out to “connect” with people all over the world at any time of day or night would make social isolation a practical impossibility, but that simply isn’t the case.
Rather than feel as though we have deep, meaningful relationships with people, a new study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine has found that people who use social media more also report feeling more socially isolated.
People involved in the study, aged between 19 and 32 were asked to estimate how much time they spent on social media sites like Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Google Plus, Instagram, Snapchat, Reddit, Tumblr, Pinterest, Vine and LinkedIn. Surprisingly, those who spent the most time on social media also reported feeling the loneliest.
In other research, it has been proven that modern lifestyles are making us feel lonelier. One study lead by Dr. Andrew McCulloch, Chief Executive Officer of the Mental Health Foundation, argues although there is no hard, historic data to show that loneliness – which is arguably subjective – is getting worse, there is sociological evidence. He explains,
“We have data that suggests people’s social networks have got smaller and families are not providing the same level of social context they may have done 50 years ago.
“It’s not because they are bad or uncaring families, but it’s to do with geographical distance, marriage breakdown, multiple caring responsibilities [for an increasingly ill population] and longer working hours [with no productivity gains].”
So how does this break down to affect our health so deeply?
The immune systems of people who feel lonely and isolated are compromised. Their bodies choose to focus on bacteria rather than viral threats. Without the antiviral protection and the body’s antibodies produced against various ills, the result is that a person has less ability to fight cancer and other diseases.
Those who are socially isolated suffer from higher all-cause mortality, and higher rates of cancer, infection, and heart disease – in short, they are more likely to die from loneliness even than from smoking cigarettes.
Looking to Nature for Solutions
When you look at our closest mammalian relatives in the wild, say wolves or dolphins, they thrive when they stay in a closely-knit pack.
When a single female moth emits a bouquet of pheromones to attract potential mates, she is engaging in social behavior. When a male red deer roars loudly to signal dominance and keep other males away, he is also being social. There is a whole host of intricate communication which happens when we interact in a physical way.
Even ants and other insects with the most primitive brains need social interaction.
Digital “connection” lacks a way to allow us these subtle cues. Think for instance of all the subtle communication that is lost when we simply response to one another with emojis or shoot an off-the-cuff email to someone on Facebook. This may be necessary as part of our modern world but these methods of communication don’t allow the brain-to brain, skin-to-skin interaction which we crave.
For instance, a single hug triggers a dopamine dump, nature’s feel-better chemical. This change in our hormones is built-in to natural interaction, but not into the digital landscape.
If we behaved more like our animal counterparts, we would seek in-person connection as often as possible.
Looking to Neuroscience for Solutions
There is even a part of our brains that is constantly looking for interaction with others in order to determine how we fit into the world.
As Pascal Vrticka writes,
“Not surprisingly, there is emerging evidence that evolutionary processes have favored the development of complex social behaviors in humans, along with the brain architecture that supports them. The human brain, and particularly the neocortex (which constitutes its outmost layer), is much larger in humans as compared to other primates and mammals of similar size. This is particularly interesting because the neocortex comprises many of the brain areas involved in higher social cognition, such as conscious thought, language, behavioral and emotion regulation, as well as empathy and theory of mind — the ability to understand the feelings and intentions of others. We are, so to speak, biologically hard-wired for interacting with others, and are thus said to be endowed with a “social brain.”
We also now have proof that poor social bonding when we are young leads to delayed or damaged emotional development.
Preliminary evidence from Stanford suggest that parenting our children with a lackadaisical attachment style can lead to weak social bonding abilities later.
How do we solve the loneliness problem in a digital age?
We use social media less, and meet for lunch more. We spend time in peoples’ physical presence. We talk to our neighbor when we go out to get the mail. We look into people’s eyes. Hold hands. Touch them. Hug each other!
If you are separated by geography from your loved ones, pick up the phone and call them. The human voice has an infinite amount more expression and social cues which we crave than an email, or a digital, social media post.