If there’s one irrepressible human trait that’s impossible to ignore, it’s the desire for human contact. Whether it’s through a group or an individual, having a sense of connectedness is an intrinsic part of human behaviour. According to research from Bolger, Zuckerman & Kessler in 2000, it’s also imperative for our mental and physical health.
It’s therefore counterintuitive that in a world filled with such densely populated cities and towns, that so many of us feel isolated. In a charity report titled “You’re not alone”, almost seven million people in the UK state that they don’t have a close friend.
Aside from the social consequences of these statistics, there is clear evidence that social isolation and loneliness are associated with negative health outcomes. Loneliness has been shown to increase mortality rates by 29%, while social isolation can increase the probability of having a mental health need by 47% among the older generation (Social Finance, 2013). While the evidence suggests that feelings of isolation increase as we age, it can affect anyone, at any time.
The difference between social isolation and loneliness
However it’s important to understand the distinction between social isolation and loneliness. Social isolation can be caused physically through distance, a disability, or emotionally through social stigmas or traumatic events. While loneliness is defined as a subjective state, based on a person’s emotional perception of the number and quality of social connections they have, compared with what they actually need.
It’s therefore possible be socially isolated through a disability, but not to feel lonely if you have a good support network. However, regardless of semantics, weak social connections can carry increased health risks, placing additional stress on local health and social care services, not to mention the impact it can have on individuals.
Loneliness in an increasingly busy world
There are numerous debates as to why many of us feel isolated, however it would seem (somewhat ironically) that human beings, the ultra-social mammals, have become anti-social. While economic and technological change undoubtedly play a role in the prevalence of isolation, so does ideology. Even though our wellbeing is inextricably linked to the lives of others, everywhere we are told that we will prosper through competitive self-interest and extreme individualism.
Many aspects of the media - and the Western world particularly – view a win at all cost and competitive spirit as the defining characteristic of human relations. For many facets of society, it now seems unethical to impede the natural formation of winners and losers. It’s what we see on The Apprentice, The X-Factor, even the Great British Bake Off.
This resulting inequality has seemingly been recast as virtuous, where the only way to enrich the lives of others is to succeed, generate wealth, and hope that some of it trickles down to those who need it most. However the question is what impact this has when promoting inclusivity and a collaborative group environment, or have we become programed to perpetually pit ourselves against one another? However clichéd it may sound, have we lost sight of what’s truly important in life, namely each other?
Many share this sense that we have lost sight of what really matters in the pursuit of wealth or materialism, however the disagreement is often over whom to blame. Factors such as income, healthcare budgets, education level, socioeconomic status and living in rural or deprived communities can all play a role in social isolation. Basically it’s complicated!
It’s also likely that at some point we’ve all internalised and maybe even reinforced these ideals. Those born into fortunate circumstances may have persuaded themselves that they acquired their wealth through hard work and merit, ignoring any advantages in education, inheritance and social status that may have played a helping hand. While the less fortunate may have blamed themselves for certain life events, even when they can do little to change their circumstances.
The two sides of social media
Social media, for all its many advantages, can bring us together in new and unexpected ways, but it can also drives us apart at the same time. By allowing us precisely to measure our social standing, seeing who has more friends and followers than we do, how we view ourselves is again based on individual comparisons.
Stories of other people’s achievements, like Forbes “30 Under 30” feature, can exacerbates these feelings. If a tech wizard has made their first million by the age of 19, it can make someone in their 30’s who hasn’t quite figured out what they want to do in life, feel even more left out.
The other consideration is that while Social Media enables us to easily connect with long-lost friends, does it disconnect us from the people we actually have in our everyday life? Do we send a text or write on a Facebook wall instead of calling or getting together in person? The advancement of technology is inevitable, and also extremely useful, but it will never hold a torch to physical human contact.
The benefits of physical contact
One of the primary benefits of physical contact is highlighted in some intriguing research from the University of California. It suggests that social pain and physical pain are actually processed by the same neural circuits.
The research suggests that in both humans and other social mammals, social contact actually reduces pain. This is arguably why we hug children when they hurt themselves, subconsciously using physical contact to release pain reducing hormones in the recipient. It would appear that love and affection could be a powerful anaesthetic.
Ultimately, research suggests that there are clear health benefits from having friends, being part of a group and human contact. We innately use social bonds to help each other to deal with challenges, in whichever form this may take. Through years of evolution people intuitively realise there is strength in numbers, and take comfort in the company of others, especially in times of anxiety or need.
Heather Mason is the founder of The Minded Institute - a world leader in the development and implementation of yoga therapy and mindfulness, and a 200 hour yoga teacher training course.