WHY SOCIAL CONNECTION IS VITAL TO OUR MENTAL HEALTH
We need others to survive. Literally.
Being social has helped us to survive and grow over millions of years. Socialization was a key strength for the primate ancestors of humans when they switched from foraging for food by night (using darkness as a source of protection) to carrying out their activities by day, which made them increasingly vulnerable to a whole host of other predators. Aside from foraging, we also need to procreate to ensure the survival of our species. No rocket science involved there. However, in order to procreate, we need the qualities of compassion and empathy to search for a mate as well as protect our young from harm. We need each other to survive.
I experienced this firsthand in 2012 when I joined an amateur musical theatre group as a means of socialization (and to prevent spending seven nights a week alone in my apartment). My expectations were to break out of my solo routine, sing a few songs from Les Miserables, and dance. What I got instead was a family. This group of people welcomed me with open arms, provided warmth, acceptance, laughter, joy and lots of celebration. After ten weeks of intense weekly rehearsals, we bonded like kids at summer camp. It was fast, and attachments grew strong. After the play ended, we didn’t say goodbye. We said, “See you next month at the jam party.” Every month or so, we host jam parties, where the family brings food, drink, and song into our home. It is magical to watch and the oxytocin runs high. We are there for each other for not just regular jam sessions, but for birthdays, funerals, births, divorces and marriages. We are there through it all. We are a family. Oh, and did I mention I met my husband, and the father of my nine-month-old baby girl there as well?
Psychologist Susan Pinker says, “Face-to-face contact releases a whole cascade of neurotransmitters and, like a vaccine, they protect you now, in the present, as well as into the future, so shaking hands, giving somebody a high-five is enough to release oxytocin, which increases your level of trust, and it lowers your cortisol levels (the stress hormone). She adds indicates that “dopamine is also, which gives us a little high and it kills pain. It’s like a naturally produced morphine.”
"Shaking hands, giving somebody a high-five is enough to release oxytocin, which increases your level of trust and lowers cortisol levels."
Studies show that people who feel more connected to others have lower levels of anxiety, depression, higher self-esteem, greater empathy for others, are more trusting and cooperative, and as a result, others are more open to trusting and cooperating with them. Another study from 2017 showed that those undergoing chemotherapy for cancer tended to fare better if they had access to social support and interaction, suggesting that just by being around others can strengthen us both mentally and physically.
So here are some ideas for social connection:
1. Join a running room, dance class, tennis group, or any other type of physical activity
2. Sign up for a meditation class
3. Register for a writing course, painting class, or any other hobby of interest
4. FaceTime with family and friends who live at a distance
5. Babysit your grandkids or read them stories before bed
6. Attend religious services at your church, synagogue or temple
7. Join an amateur musical theatre group or choir
8. Rotate houses monthly to host friends for dinner
9. Volunteer at your favourite charity organization
10. Invite a guest speaker to your house once a month, and invite friends over for an interesting and interactive discussion, along with food and drinks
The emotional support provided by social connection has shown to help reduce the negative effects of stress, and can foster a sense of meaning and purpose in life. It is also correlated with a stronger immune system, fighting off colds, the flu and even some types of cancer. Between the physical and mental benefits of socialization, isn’t it time we got out there and connected?