Through the years, our species has not only thrived but survived by connecting with others. Whether we were gathering berries, settling new lands, or building high-rises, we did it together empowered by the human connection. It’s this human connection that has enabled the evolution from hunters and gatherers to buying paper towels in bulk at Costco. The more advanced we got the more important the human connection became.
Modern advances in society have been marked by the Information Age – the 20th-century rapid epochal shift from traditional industry established by the Industrial Revolution to an economy primarily based upon information technology. Technology has made everything easier, faster, more convenient and changed the way we communicate. But think How many of our work meetings are virtual? How many expressions of celebration are emailed? How many times do we tell someone we care about them with a heart or kissy face emoji?
One byproduct of the rise in digital communication intended to make everything faster, easier, and more convenient, was a rise in loneliness. To explore the impact of loneliness, in our culture and in our workplaces, Cigna published a national survey of 10,000 U.S. adults. Prior to the pandemic, 3 in 5 Americans reported being lonely. After the pandemic, it’s increased to 4 in 5, particularly among 18–24-year-olds who are identified as the loneliest group with the elderly following closely behind them.
Social psychologists define loneliness as the gap between the social connections you would like to have and those you feel your experience.
But loneliness is a subjective experience – one that is not always easily identifiable. People who are alone are not necessarily lonely. The converse is also true: just because someone appears to have a lot of friends does not mean they are NOT lonely.
Much research has been conducted over the last 20 years or so highlighting the decline of social capital in the United States, but more recently, loneliness has become a serious issue of public health. In 2017, former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murth called loneliness a public health “epidemic.” A year later, the United Kingdom appointed a “minister for loneliness.” We are only beginning to understand the many ways the pandemic – and loneliness – impacts our health, including emotional health and well-being.
There is a wealth of research over the last 50 years showing how human connection and a sense of belonging build resilience, counters stress, and improves physical, emotional, and mental health – especially during difficult times. One study conducted at UCLA showed that “feeling connected” to others strengthens immunity and reduces recovery time from illness or medical procedures.
Another study found that people who are socially isolated develop changes in their immune system, react more intensely to stressful events and suffer more extensively as a result of the stress. Other experts maintain that loneliness and social isolation are twice as harmful to physical and mental health as obesity, and the physiological consequences include cognitive decline, increased depression, diminished sleep quality, and increased morbidity and mortality.
Other studies show that feelings of connection don’t just make us feel good; they make us do good. Our level of social connectedness corresponds to pro-social behaviors. Feeling connected reduces aggression and increases altruism while feeling excluded increases aggression and reduces altruism.
Altruistic behaviors that grow out of challenging times enable people to feel a greater sense of purpose, meaning, and healing within the context of community.
In the aftermath of tragedies and natural disasters such as mass shootings, hurricanes, and wildfires, we’ve witnessed the very best of us – kindness, generosity, and empathy among strangers bound only by humanity. As we witness the atrocities inflicted on the people of Ukraine, it is the images of people helping people that tap into the depths of our compassion and make us look for ways to feel more connected.
A very simple explanation for all of these scientific findings is what Maslow identified as our third fundamental human need – right after basic physiology and personal safety. More recent psychological research suggests that social connectedness may be the most important basic human need because belonging is what enables us to actualize the others.
Certainly, the pandemic has had a powerful impact on our social connectedness. Differences in politics and demonstrations of racism and xenophobia have caused many of us to take inventory of friends and family who do not share our values and limit the interaction we have with them. After 5 or 6 years of polarizing “conversations,” normalized bad behavior, and permission to exercise our “rights” to be hateful, many of us have trimmed our social connections, unfriended, and unfollowed. But it’s the quality of our connections – not the quantity – that counts.
It is no secret that times of crisis, uncertainty, or unwanted change can bring out the worst in people. We can choose to add to our growing anxiety by focusing on the hate, greed, or fear we see. Or we can choose to look for the good and surround ourselves with people who share our values of uplifting others in word or deed, add our own positive ripple in the universe, to help one another and build strong and enduring human relationships that will get us through this thing together.
Times like this are exactly when we need to be “together” the most.