The benefits, and practices of social connection for a happier life.
By Shari Botts, BSN, RN, CPHQ, CIC
The holiday season is upon us, and we’ll soon be gathering with family and friends to celebrate; but did you realize that all of those upcoming gatherings can actually help us live longer? Social Connection is just as critical to our health and wellbeing as good nutrition, physical activity, and sleep.
Doctors are Now Prescribing Connection
During your next annual or wellness visit, your doctor may very well ask questions about the quantity and quality of your social interactions. In May of 2023, Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy officially recommended the designation of social connectedness as a public health priority. The medical community recognizes the science behind connection: As humans, our brains are hardwired to connect with others, and decades of research prove that social connectedness can lead to better health and longer life, and, I might add, a happier life! Social support has been proven to improve cancer survival, strengthen immune function, lower blood pressure, and improve overall mental health.
A 2010 meta-analysis of over 100 published articles on human interactions and health outcomes reported that social connections with friends, family, coworkers, or neighbors improves the odds of survival by 50%! In fact, low social interaction was found to be similar to smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and to be twice as harmful as obesity. Some psychiatrists have even compared social connection to vitamins: “just as we need vitamin C each day, we also need a dose of the human moment – positive contact with other people.”
A Harvard Study of Adult Development was a 75-year study that followed the lives of 724 men, leading to the conclusion that the BEST predictor of who would grow into a happy, healthy 80+ year old person was not their cholesterol level or blood pressure, but how satisfied they were in their relationships and having strong social connections.
The Blue Zones
You may have read Dan Buettner’s book, The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who’ve Lived the Longest, when it was first published in 2004; or you may have watched his Netflix documentary, Live to 100: Secrets of the Blue Zones. Social connectedness is one of the nine tenets of longevity based on his travels to the places around the world where people routinely live to 100. Examples include the “moai” in Okinawa, Japan: a lifelong circle of friends that supports each other well into old age; the friends in Ikaria, Greece playing their late-night domino games; and the folks in Sardinia, Italy laughing and drinking red wine together.
What Exactly is Connection?
Edward Hollowell, MD, in his 1999 book title Connect defined connection as “feeling a part of something larger than yourself, feeling close to another person or group, feeling welcomed, and understood.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) lists these characteristics of social connectedness:
- The number, variety and types of relationships a person has
- Having meaningful and regular social exchanges
- Sense of support from friends, families, and others in the community
- Sense of belonging
- Having close bonds with others
- Feeling loved, cared for, valued and appreciated by others
- Having more than 1 person to turn to for support. This includes emotional support when feeling down, and physical support, like getting a ride to the doctor or grocery store, or getting help with childcare
- Access to safe public areas to gather (such as parks and recreation centers)
How to Connect?
We all lead busy lives, and often our social connections fall by the wayside. Now that we know how important our connections are, we may need to re-prioritize our relationships and grow our social connectedness. Especially in the digital age in which we live, we must be intentional in prioritizing face-to-face connection with each other. Human connection beats technology every time. Here are some ideas:
- Invite a friend for coffee or happy hour
- Reach out to a friend to catch up
- Accept those invitations for social gatherings
- Plan some group activities with friends, like a monthly game night
- Join a book club
- Join a hobby group, or try a new hobby
- Join a walking group
- Volunteer for a cause that is important to you
- Participate in a community service activity
- Introduce yourself to your neighbors
- Make a point to perform random acts of kindness
Opportunities for Connection in our Hometown
Communities can help create social connection among its residents, and we are fortunate to live in Hamilton where we have numerous opportunities to meet with friends, and make new friends; here are just a few suggestions:
- Hamilton’s Urban Backyard (HUB)
- 17 Strong
- Neighborhood meetings
- Walking Wednesdays
- Coffee houses True West and The Fringe
- Our beautiful parks
For more information:
The Surgeon General’s Framework for a National Strategy to Advance Social Connection can be found at: https://www.hhs.gov/surgeongeneral/priorities/connection/resources/index.html
Learn more about The Blue Zones and sign up for a weekly newsletter at: https://www.bluezones.com
“The most important things in life are the connections you make with others.” – Tom Ford