What comes to mind when you talk about healthy habits? Many people think about eating nutritious food, getting adequate movement, staying away from cigarettes, limiting alcohol, and possibly lowering stress levels.
These are all important habits, but there is one habit that most people simply are not aware of. It might surprise you, but “enjoying social connections” is an important health habit!
Research is showing that social connections have a major impact on both our mental and physical health. While the impact of social connections on emotional wellbeing may be expected, the extensive impact on physical health may come as a surprise.
Let’s take a look at this dynamic so that you can lean into the benefits of social connections.
Social Connections Impact of Physical Health
The American Association for the Advancement of Science published a study that found “a lack of social connection is a greater detriment to health than obesity, smoking and high blood pressure.”
A lack of social connections has also been linked to inflammation and hypertension. It may be shocking, but strong social connections actually improve your immune system and lead to a 50% increased chance of longevity. The benefits are surprising, but true.
More research is needed to discover why social connections have such a dramatic impact on health, but the research is clear that social connections are extremely important if you want to live a long and healthy life.
What’s at the Core of Social Connection
So, what does it mean to be socially connected? Researcher and author Brene Brown defines connection “as the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.”
Feeling seen, heard, and understood is enough to feel connected to another person weather near or far. Some people find it easier to build connections with people who live locally. Getting together for dinner, coffee, a game, or a walk can be fun ways to build relationships with those around you.
Connections, however, can be built from a distance as well. It may take a little more work to connect with friends who you don’t see regularly, but these relationships can be cultivated through phone calls, a text, zoom calls, emails, and even an old fashion letter.
How to Set Yourself Up for Connection
Our society tends to be pretty distracted and fast paced. This can make social connections hard to come by. There are some simple things that you can do to increase your chances for a good connection.
The first is pretty straight forward, though it is often difficult. Make time for the people in your life that you value. If you are lucky enough to have people that you connect with on a deep level, make them a priority.
When you are with them guard from distractions and focus on connecting with them. Many people don’t realize how cell phones can distract, preventing deep connections. Research has found that even the presence of a cell phone can interfere with feelings of closeness. This can keep you from enjoying the moment with those around you and prevent you from building the connection you desire.
You may also build relationships through connecting with your community. Talking with neighbors, going to local events, or joining a local organization (book club, PTA, church, etc.) can fill your day with little connections. Even smiling at a cashier can provide a moment of connection. Don’t minimize the value of these interactions.
It is possible to feel isolated and alone, even if you are surrounded by people. It can be really confusing when you are in this situation. You may think that you “shouldn’t” feel lonely when you are surrounded by people. But just because you are with people doesn’t mean that you feel seen, heard, and understood. As you work to build fulfilling relationships, you can also focus on building internal connection.
Connecting with Yourself
Cultivating connection with yourself can be extremely powerful. While everyone needs this important connection, it can be an especially important tool for those combating loneliness.
Part of connecting with yourself is slowing down enough to notice what is going on internally. This may mean going for a relaxing walk, laying in a hammock, or doing meditation - as long as the activity doesn’t become a distraction.
When you slow down, you may feel many emotions. Some emotions such as happiness, peace, and excitement may feel good, but other more difficult emotions may appear as well. It is important to accept all of these emotions without judgment or an attempt to change them.
Accepting all of our emotions is the first step in working through the difficult ones. Emma Seppala, Ph.D., points out that children “often give free reign to their emotions... (but) children also get over negative emotions extremely quickly.” She continues to explain that “adults, in an attempt to bury and control their emotions often carry them with them for years. Allowing the emotion to arise and giving it our full attention may be a key to letting it go.”
Connecting with Nature
Spending time in nature can be a great way to find a sense of connection. Walks in nature can increase your feelings of well-being even if you have depression. Research has found that exposure to nature increases your value of connectedness and closeness, making you more caring and ready to share with others.”
Connections to others, yourself, and nature can have a positive impact on both your emotional and physical health! So, add this to your list of healthy habits and enjoy some time of connection without thinking about all the other things you “should” be doing. You will benefit greatly by making this a priority.
For more great ways to improve your social connections check out the National Institute of Health’s Social Wellness Toolkit. I hope you find ways to connect with yourself, others, and nature during the upcoming fall season!