Some of my most potent and deeply resonant posts have been on the topic of social isolation.
My personal story: Throughout my entire childhood, I was painfully shy. When I would finally work up the courage to speak up around my peers, my efforts were often met with blank stares. So, I kept my thoughts to myself and generally avoided being around people, with the exception of my family and best friend. With age comes acceptance into more “adult” circles. Over the past few years, I have found my people: the like-minded and like-hearted. Yet, there are still days where I question, “What more is out there? And why doesn’t anyone seem to care?”
In the latest edition of Scientific American Mind, the topics of social isolation and loneliness were addressed. It has long been understood that loneliness is linked to poor health, and social isolation leads to premature death. However, older studies were often performed concurrently and the differences between the two were not controlled for. In recent studies, scientists have been able to tease apart loneliness and social isolation in order to examine the factors that are literally killing us.
Scientists found that the true culprit is not the subjective pain and stress of loneliness, but rather a quantitative lack of social contact. Examine this for a second within the context of your own life. When you get upset and give everyone in your life the silent treatment, what goes on in your head? How would it feel to be in a perpetual state of nonconstructive, and sometimes cruel, mental chatter? Put yourself in the shoes of an elderly woman who has lived alone since the death of her husband and chooses not to see old friends. Tap into your empathy and imagine how it would feel to have no one in your life; imagine how that could affect you well-being and motivation to live.
Speculatively, when you don’t have anyone to share your sadness and small joys with, the meaning of these small occurrences deteriorates. As we isolate ourselves, we detach ourselves from our innate capacity to discover and define meaning in our lives. The lack of accountability could also encourage unhealthy lifestyle habits, such as smoking and remaining sedentary.
Relationships are an important aspect of living a fulfilling and happy life. The study mentioned above found that even brief social interactions–even when it does not involve a close emotional bond–such as small talk with a neighbor or your barista, could ultimately extend your life. If you know someone who lives alone and tends to shut themselves off from the world, consider reaching out to them, equipped with this new knowledge. If you ever find yourself slipping into a prolonged state of isolation, recognize that a brief conversation could shift your day, and subsequently your life. If the symptoms are more severe, please do see a doctor. I am not a doctor, and I do not have all the answers.
This particular study focuses on the long term effect of social isolation: premature death. However, our life is constructed of moments and habits, so making one small yet positive change today could completely change the trajectory and length of your life.
Solitude vivifies; isolation kills. -Joseph Roux