Few of us humans consider socializing as a means to anything. It is a satisfying end to the casual and effortless way we conduct ourselves around other people. We derive pleasure from the company of others. I, personally, can’t think of a “regular” activity that is more enjoyable than quality socializing. We’ve all experienced falling into that groove with friends wherein the words flow and clash, the spotlight of attention bounces all around, everyone laughs and memories are forged. The kind of gathering that has you still thinking about it the next day.
And, oddly enough, I also find socializing to be mentally exhausting. Those of you who also express the symptoms of introversion are nodding their heads in agreement. It is not effortless to everyone! Interacting with other people who perceive like you do, analyze like you do, but who possess the randomness of reaction that you do not feels to some like a performance, or test. As a result, they get nervous. Even extrovert-inclined individuals can sometimes relate.
Furthermore, a smaller portion of us are magnetically repelled from a social life for other reasons, a few common ones being overworking, neglect, cynicism/distaste, anxiety, and depression.
Addressing any of the above reasons someone would fail to socialize is not the focus of this article. The focus is the importance of socializing. The life-altering importance, akin to good diet, sleep, and exercise. If that is known, perhaps it will serve as the reason for some to force change in their lives. To join a club or volunteer for community service or simply dine out instead of in tonight. We might see that mental well-being can be sought with small steps which produce big changes.
But how can loneliness impact our physical health? It’s not like I’m smoking or eating fast food every day. To understand it, one should seek an understanding of the intimate and powerful connection our subjective mental worlds have with our physical bodies. Our thoughts manifest as an electrochemical dance performed in the very physical medium of our brain matter. Said “think meat” pulls the invisible strings which actuate the rest of us. It is this connection which allows monks to lower their body temperature by meditating; it allows sugar pills to perform as well as powerful medications; it allows laughter to lower blood pressure, reduce cortisol and boost immune function. And lastly, it precipitates sickliness from loneliness (and vice versa).
If the incredible relationship between mind and body (assuming such a distinction can be made) doesn’t surprise you, perhaps the degree to which feelings of isolation can impact health will.
First, enter the Blue Zones: geographic areas of the globe where people live much longer lives and suffer a mere fraction of the diseases which commonly kill people elsewhere. Five of these zones have been identified, located in Italy, Japan, California, Costa Rica, and Greece. When researchers studied the people living in these zones, they found a few lifestyle characteristics present in all five. Expected were non-smoking, ample physical activity, and plant-rich diet. Unexpected was the vast importance the peoples of Blue Zones put on social engagement. From birth to death, the inhabitants of these zones socialize as frequently as they eat, putting family and friendships ahead of many other concerns.
Correlations, however, do not imply causation. To establish causation we look to more rigorous studies, such as one from the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry which determined that feelings of loneliness result in a statistically significant increase in one’s likelihood of developing early onset dementia.
It is not only a concern for the elderly, however. For people of all ages, loneliness results in serious sleep fragmentation. Researchers speculate that this odd side effect can be explained by the evolutionarily important social nature of human beings. Individuals who feel more connected to others feel safer, and sleep better. Having friends was once important to survival, and has left its stamp on us.
Perhaps even stranger is what psychologists found happens in our brains when we are socially excluded. Participants of a study were involved in a ball tossing game in which they were spontaneously excluded by the other players. Their brains were being monitored by fMRI, which revealed that at the time of exclusion were patterns of activity that are eerily similar to those expressed when an individual feels physical pain.
And just how deep does this well of malaise go? To our very core, to the molecules which shape us: our DNA. Social genomics is a field of research that investigates the relationship between social factors and the human genome. When it turned its attention toward loneliness, a particularly powerful social factor, an ugly truth was revealed. Chronically lonely-feeling individuals were studied closely, and were found to have weakened immune systems. They discovered that those who had small social networks, but who didn’t feel lonely, were unaffected. Those with friends, but who nonetheless felt isolated, were affected. The researchers concluded that antigen-presenting cells (crucial to fighting pathogens) have evolved, from our ancient past, a sensitivity to social conditions that allows them to alter gene expression in response.
Lastly, to provide some big-picture perspective, we end with a meta-analysis of 70 independent studies done between 1980 and 2014. The cumulative data, reflecting over 3.4 million people followed for an average of 7 years, clearly showed the impact which loneliness has on mortality. After accounting for all the discrepancies which would skew the data, it was found that the increased likelihood of death was 26% for reported loneliness, 29% for actual isolation, and 32% for living alone (notice the insignificant difference between felt loneliness and actual). Numbers as large as these mean that we have only begun to understand just how thoroughly loneliness racks our minds and bodies.
So it is, in our everlasting pursuit of health and good feelings, a most powerful tool is often easy to overlook and underestimate. There exists in the grocery checkout line, and in the neighborhood cookout, an opportunity to seize better health! If it comes easy, good for you. If it’s hard, make the challenge an object of your problem-solving skills and make it happen. Your life could depend on it.
Eisenberger NI; Lieberman MD; Williams KD. “Does rejection hurt? An FMRI study of social exclusion.” PMID:14551424.
Julianne Holt-Lunstad; Timothy B. Smith; Mark Baker; Tyler Harris; and David Stephenson. “Loneliness and Social Isolation as Risk Factors for Mortality: A Meta-Analytic Review.” Perspectives on Psychological Science 2015, Vol. 10(2) 227–237.
Kurina LM; Knutson KL; Hawkley LC; Cacioppo JT; Lauderdale DS; Ober C. Loneliness is associated with sleep fragmentation in a communal society. SLEEP 2011;34(11):1519-1526.
Poulain M.; Pes G.M.; Grasland C.; Carru C.; Ferucci L.; Baggio G.; Franceschi C.; Deiana L. (2004). “Identification of a Geographic Area Characterized by Extreme Longevity in the Sardinia Island: the AKEA study”. Experimental Gerontology39 (9): 1423–1429.
Steven W. Colea; Louise C. Hawkleyc; Jesusa M. G. Arevaloa; and John T. Cacioppoc. “Transcript origin analysis identifies antigenpresenting cells as primary targets of socially regulated gene expression in leukocytes.” PNAS, vol. 108, no. 7.
Tjalling Jan Holwerda; Dorly Deeg; Aartjan Beekman. “Feelings of loneliness, but not social isolation, predict dementia onset: results from the Amsterdam Study of the Elderly (AMSTEL).” J Neurol Neurosurg Psychiatry 2014;85:2 133-134.