Understanding Loneliness: The Power of Human Connection

The Magazine: Understanding Loneliness: The Power of Human Connection

We live in an era where it’s easier to text a stranger than to say hello to a neighbor face-to-face, and more common to receive “likes” on a social media post than an in-person compliment. In a world where we are so digitally engaged, we need real human connection more than ever.

Yes, technology makes it easier than ever to learn and explore, but at what cost?

Loneliness is a normal human emotion when temporary, but persistent feelings of isolation can be detrimental to our health. And in the last 50 years, rates of loneliness have doubled in the United States. In a survey of over 20,000 American adults, almost half of respondents reported feeling alone, left out and isolated. What’s more, one in four Americans shared that they rarely feel understood, and one in five people believe they rarely or never feel close to people. Last October, former US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy declared loneliness a “growing health epidemic.” At a time when people are more connected than ever thanks to technology and social media, rates of social isolation are rising at alarming rates.

Loneliness and isolation: what if the most dangerous thing for our health is not disease, but a lack of meaningful human connection?

Studies show that human beings who experience prolonged isolation become unstable. In the short-term, those who feel loneliness are less likely to achieve quality sleep and thus experience challenges in reasoning and creativity. In the long-term, people who experience prolonged loneliness are at a higher risk for cardiovascular problems and even premature death. Research suggests that loneliness can even impact our genes, with emotional and physical impacts of loneliness triggering cellular changes that alter gene expression in the body.

Loneliness drastically affects productivity in the workplace, leading to less job satisfaction reported by lonely individuals and a higher rate of unemployment. And according to a recent study published in the Harvard Business Review, employees who experienced higher levels of loneliness in their personal lives also reported fewer promotions, less job satisfaction, and a greater likelihood for frequently changing jobs — with lawyers, doctors and engineers reporting the highest levels of loneliness.

What causes loneliness?

Sadly, the cycle of loneliness is self-perpetuating, as loneliness can be caused by the overuse of technology and can lead to the compulsive use of it as a coping mechanism. Individuals who feel an absence of and longing for authentic human connection may turn to their digital devices for comfort, which further perpetuates a feeling of isolation. When we experience loneliness, the feeling is as real and detrimental as physical pain.

How to cope with loneliness:

We have genetically evolved to experience the tangible benefits of human connection, which include an increased feeling of belonging, purpose, happiness, self-worth and confidence. And studies across all mammals show that our well-being depends on our connections with others. Because of how we are wired to experience social pain and pleasure, meaningful human connection is a necessity, not a luxury.

There’s a region of the brain called the “medial prefrontal cortex” that sits between our eyes and is activated when we self-reflect. Several studies show that the same region of the brain is activated when we are influenced by the beliefs of others around us. What this means is that there is a part of our brain that enables social influence, desiring connection and harmony.

Even our memory is impacted by social networks, suggesting that motivation and retention is stronger with a relationship as the driver, rather than individual achievement. Research shows that children learn more effectively when their motivation is to teach someone else, as opposed to learning just to take a test. On so many levels, we are programmed to connect to those around us; according to UCLA professor Matthew Lieberman, “Being socially connected is our brain’s lifelong passion.”

The importance of human connection for our survival:

This basic need to form, grow and sustain relationships and to belong to a group, team or family, is universal. Now more than ever, we all need regular human interactions, loyal relationships, dependable emotional support, and a feeling of belonging — whoever we are, wherever we are.

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