If you’re an introvert, you understand the struggle of being in busy social situations.
You might be “that guy” at conferences or events, who ducks away to your room or heads outside to recharge your batteries every few hours – something you can only accomplish by escaping the crowds and being utterly alone. Maybe you thrive on long, solitary walks, multi-hour hikes and extended bike rides. Maybe even at family events, you tend to wander off to the edge of the room to sit back and enjoy some time to yourself.
Perhaps you’re energized by social settings. Human interaction leaves you feeling refreshed and ready for the rest of the day, and when you don’t get your social fix, you end up a little melancholy, or even depressed. No matter if you’re introverted or extroverted, or how long it takes until a lack of social interaction begins to noticeably affect your well-being, the fact is that it eventually will. This is actually a condition that’s ravaging modern society, but it tends to fly under the radar. It’s been shown to increase the prevalence not only of depression and other mental conditions, but also of physical health risks like cardiovascular disease.
It’s social isolation. Loneliness.
The frequency of loneliness is kind of ironic, isn’t it? Today, people live in a hyper connected society, and yet one of the biggest uphill battles we can face in terms of health is disconnectedness, whether perceived or real.
The reason is pretty simple. Even when you’re on Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram - any type of digital social media outlets - you’re not actually experiencing relationships the way that you’re programmed to from an ancestral standpoint. You’re not seeing people’s eyes, you’re not touching them, you’re not feeling them, you’re not experiencing the invisible, chemical signals that human beings create, or all of the other sorts of things you’ll learn a little bit more about here.
Social Media’s Impact On Health
As social apps like Snapchat and Instagram keep developing, and as media outlets like Facebook get larger, both the positive and negative impacts of digital communication are becoming more and more apparent. For instance, some obvious advantages to using social media include greater ease of connectivity, community help and education forums, greater awareness, faster spread and broader reach of information, improved marketing efforts, and more.
However, this extremely new and shallow form of social ties has been linked to numerous health issues as well, including depressive symptoms, anxiety, and low self-esteem. Considering the mass popularity of online social networking, a continual confirmation of psychiatric disorders linked to digital communication use will pose a serious public health concern.
When you don’t get much interpersonal interaction, your emotional intelligence (EI) begins to suffer. And people who spend a lot of time on the internet are lonelier, have more deviant values, and to a lesser extent lack emotional and social skills characteristic of high EI.
Despite popular opinion, when it comes to social isolation and loneliness, it really isn’t about getting more friends on Facebook. It’s about going out of your way to build better relationships and not be a lone wolf. For some people isolation might be an easy pitfall to tumble into, especially if you spend a lot of time traveling, writing, or not interacting with people much in the course of a normal work day.
Why Social Isolation Is Bad For Your Health
Even though social isolation is an easy trap to fall into, there are many scary and valid reasons to save yourself from this situation. Perceived social loneliness affects the cardiovascular and neuroendocrine systems and leads to depression, sleep problems, and cognitive decline through neural, hormonal, genetic, emotional, and behavioral mechanisms.
But, there are a few things you can do to minimize this kind of lifestyle.
“Reclaiming Conversation” explains how to step away from the smartphone and engage in conversations, and make eye contact in a more intensive way than you might be used to. It sounds pretty intuitive, but the book is kind of mind-blowing in terms of explaining the ways in which social isolation changes your physiology and your relationships, your emotions and your health.
There’s another book that’s a pretty good read when it comes to this stuff – “The Shallows”. It talks about how contemporary Internet culture affects your brain, rewires it, and how that affects our society, interactions, friendships, relationships, and even longevity. And in regards to longevity, this study shows that having strong social relationships predicts a 50% increased chance of longevity. In simpler terms, the risk of death among people with the fewest social ties was more than twice as high as the risk for adults with the most social ties.
Why Social Ties & Relationships Are Critical To Good Health & Longevity
This is further confirmed when looking at some of the longest living populations, with one prevailing characteristic among them being strong, loving, solid relationships and a high dose of social interaction.
In his book “Blue Zones”, longevity expert and author Dan Buettner identified five geographic areas where people live the longest, statistically speaking: Okinawa (Japan), Sardinia (Italy), Nicoya (Costa Rica), Icaria (Greece), and among the Seventh-day Adventists in Loma Linda, California.
Buettner offers an explanation, based on empirical data and first-hand observations, as to why these populations live healthier and longer lives. Turns out, the people inhabiting these “blue zones” share common lifestyle characteristics that contribute to their longevity, from life purpose to stress reduction to moderating alcohol intake and beyond. The main six shared characteristics are these:
- Less smoking
- A plant-rich diet
- Consistent, moderate physical activity
- Consumption of legumes
- Family engagement
- Social interaction
Buettner illustrates just how important love is, as the unifying factor between family, relationships, social engagement, and community, by showing that having strong social relationships predicts a 50% increased chance of a long, healthy life. But it’s not just the strength of the relationships. Rather, it’s the attitude with which we engage in those relationships that predicts a longer and healthier life. While many think that they need to find someone to love them, research shows that the greatest benefits for longevity and well-being come not from receiving affection but instead from giving it to others – you are in control of your health and wealth. It just comes down to your mindset.
Keith Ferrazzi wrote a book with Tahl Raz titled “Never Eat Alone: And Other Secrets to Success, One Relationship at a Time”. Ferrazzi has a circle of contacts that numbers in the thousands, a circle he’s cultivated for years, and one that he has based on an incredibly important aspect of any relationship: generosity. His approach studies and integrates not just networking, behavior, intuition, and power, but also emotion, reciprocity, and trust, all integral parts of workplace and personal relationships (which frequently overlap).
Now, it’s important to note that Ferrazzi’s approach capitalizes on the connectivity provided by social media and the internet. LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, they’re all powerful tools - when used correctly and in the right dose. In Ferrazzi’s words, “Today’s kids… their social-media-driven upbringing will make them savants in some areas of relationship building, and idiots in others…” Social media outlets shouldn’t be your primary sources of interaction. Instead, they should be places where you sync up with the global hive and points from which you launch your connections, friendships, and relationships, which are based on personal and reciprocal interaction and trust.
Take, for example, a study done by Stephanie Brown, who works with Stony Brook University Medical Center. Those who engaged in helping others and supporting others ended up living longer lives. This was not the case for people who were simply recipients of care and support.
Another study supports and extends the findings above. It demonstrated that volunteerism predicts a longer life. Interestingly, this study found that volunteerism lengthened lives only when it was done for selfless reasons. When you sincerely wish to help others, you will reap the benefits thereof, and you cannot deceive your own body.
If meaningful love for others increases your lifespan, then the opposite must also be true.
Drawing on data from four nationally representative longitudinal samples of the U.S. population, one recent study assessed the association of social relationships such as social integration, social support, and social strain with measured biomarkers of physical health like C-reactive protein (related to inflammation), systolic and diastolic blood pressure, waist circumference, and body mass index within each life stage: adolescence, and young, middle, and late adulthood.
The researchers discovered that a higher degree of social integration was associated with lower risk of physiological dysregulation in a dose-response manner, in both early and later life. At the same time, lack of social connections was associated with vastly elevated health risks. Social isolation increased the risk of inflammation by the same magnitude as physical inactivity in adolescence, and the effects of social isolation on hypertension exceeded that of clinical risk factors such as diabetes in old age.
Even at the cellular level, human health and well-being thrive in a social context in which we are able to feel and express love. Research has identified that social connections strengthen our immune system, whereas threats to social connection may tap into the same neural and physiological “alarm system” that physical threats do. This is because genes impacted by social connection also code for immune function and inflammation. While people with low social connection have higher levels of inflammation, individuals who live a “eudaimonic” lifestyle – i.e. a life rich in compassion, altruism and greater meaning – have surprisingly lower levels of inflammation.
And, thankfully for the introverts out there, it turns out that you don’t have to be a social butterfly to enjoy these benefits. Simply generating a sense of compassion, volunteering and serving in a way that suits your personality, or even meditating on loving-kindness are all ways you can experience greater love, and, as a consequence, be happier and healthier. So it’s time to get into a plan for developing stronger relationships, with three easy methods that anyone can use.
How To Develop Stronger Relationships
Volunteering is a perfect way to open yourself up not just to interacting with other people, but specifically to interact with other people in your community. It’s very easy to get caught up in the idea that volunteerism involves going on a trip to an impoverished third world country or a faraway place devastated by a natural disaster. But the truth is, rather than buying an expensive plane ticket, you can find plenty of opportunities in your local community that will affect social change, as well as open you up to face-to-face interactions.
Some great examples of this would be reading to children at schools or the local library, preparing and serving meals at a local soup kitchen, doing crafts at local senior centers, or coaching local sports teams. These are the opportunities mentioned above, focused on selfless giving, that truly impact your health and well-being while providing invaluable benefits to members of your community.
All you have to do to get started is contact local organizations you feel passionate about helping, or use a matching service that takes into account your interests such as volunteermatch.org.
Meet-ups are undoubtedly one of the ways the internet is expanding our connectivity and increasing the likelihood of meeting people with common interests. Meet-ups happen for everything from wild plant foraging to playing board games to cooking and baking to playing music together. There’s really a meet-up for just about any hobby you’ve ever wanted to explore more deeply or any interest that you have. Finding a meet-up is just a couple clicks away, with one of the largest websites organizing such events being meetup.com.
These organized events are a fantastic way to increase your chances of meeting people you’ll form quality relationships with. You’re already guaranteed to have a common interest, the attendees are most likely local, and everyone there is in the mindset to meet new people, connect, and be social.
3) Dinner Parties
This is a fun one. Dinner parties simply involve selecting a group of people from your social circle, having them over for a meal, and engaging in deep and meaningful conversation. You can set an itinerary or just let the conversation and activities unfold as they will.
Some of the best dinner parties involve everyone giving up their smartphones and placing them somewhere out of reach. This greatly minimizes distraction and opens up the opportunity for more varied interactions based upon sharing experiences and lessons from just memory and perception to gain a better understanding of your guests and the ways in which they view the world.
Dinner parties, meet-ups, volunteering in your local community - these are all little ways you can start to foster relationships and community-building around you. These more organized interactions are suitable for both introverts and extroverts and almost guarantee you’ll be surrounded by like-minded individuals. You’ll not only form and strengthen your social ties, but your health and well-being will dramatically improve. Even if the prospect of putting yourself out there sounds a little scary or intimidating, it’s really worth it to give it a shot!