Throughout our evolutionary history, living in groups has proven to enhance our chances of survival and reproduction. We have evolved to thrive in communities. However, our levels of social connectedness have been negatively affected by various factors in recent times, and it appears to be impacting our emotional wellbeing and mental health.
Barriers to Social Connection
Unfortunately, there are several factors in particular that have contributed to people feeling less socially connected in recent years:
- COVID-19 Pandemic
The pandemic has had a significant impact on social connectedness worldwide. Lockdowns, social distancing measures, and restrictions on gatherings and travel have decreased face-to-face interactions and increased feelings of isolation for many individuals (Yu et al., 2020). Whilst technology has played a crucial role in maintaining some level of connection, the absence of in-person contact has affected social connectedness more broadly. The pandemic also contributed to increased mental health challenges. such as anxiety, depression, and stress (Loades et al., 2020). These mental health issues put a further strain on social connectedness and made it more difficult for some individuals to engage in social interactions.
- Increased Reliance on Digital Communication
There has been a considerable shift toward digital communication platforms. People have relied more on social media, video calls, messaging apps, and online communities to connect with others. While these technologies have their benefits, they do not fully replicate the benefits of in-person interactions, leading to potential challenges in maintaining deep and meaningful connections.
- Work and Lifestyle Changes
The pandemic has also led to significant changes in work and lifestyle patterns for many. Remote work arrangements and reduced social activities have impacted the frequency and quality of social interactions. Some individuals may have experienced increased isolation due to reduced contact with colleagues, friends, and social networks.
The Consequences of Less Social Connection
Human beings are inherently social creatures, and the absence of meaningful social interactions can lead to various negative consequences. Here are some ways in which reduced social connection can affect mental health and emotional well-being:
- Increased Risk of Mental Health Disorders
Research has consistently shown that social isolation and loneliness are associated with a higher risk of developing mental health disorders such as depression, anxiety, and substance abuse. A meta-analysis of 70 studies found that social isolation significantly increased the likelihood of developing depression (Holt-Lunstad et al., 2015). Similarly, another study concluded that loneliness was associated with an increased risk of anxiety and depression (Matthews et al., 2019).
- Reduced Self-Esteem and Self-Worth
Social connections contribute to our sense of belonging and self-worth. When individuals lack social interaction, they may experience a decline in self-esteem and feelings of worthlessness. A study by Qualter et al. (2015) found that social isolation during adolescence was associated with lower self-esteem in adulthood.
- Cognitive Decline
Social engagement has been linked to cognitive health. Research suggests that social interaction stimulates cognitive functioning and helps protect against age-related cognitive decline and dementia (Ertel et al., 2008). Lack of social connection, on the other hand, has been associated with an increased risk of cognitive impairment (Kuiper et al., 2015).
- Poor Emotional Regulation
Social connections play a crucial role in emotional regulation. Interacting with others provides opportunities for emotional expression, empathy, and support. Without such connections, individuals may struggle with regulating their emotions effectively, leading to increased emotional distress and difficulties in coping with stressors (Cacioppo et al., 2015).
- Impact on Physical Health
Reduced social connection not only affects mental health but can also have adverse effects on physical health. Studies have shown that social isolation and loneliness are associated with higher rates of cardiovascular diseases, weakened immune function, and increased mortality (Holt-Lunstad et al., 2010; Valtorta et al., 2016).
How to Feel More Connected
Building new social connections can take time and effort but remember to be patient and to not get discouraged by setbacks. By taking proactive steps and being open to new experiences, you can combat social isolation and cultivate a strong support network. Here are some practical tips to try out:
- Reach Out to Your Existing Network
If you are somebody who tends to wait for your friends/family/acquaintances to make the first move to reach out, challenge yourself to take the first step to initiate conversations or schedule meetups yourself, as you can foster connections and strengthen those relationships by doing so.
- Join Social or Interest-Based Groups
Engage in activities or join groups that align with your interests or hobbies. Shared activities and common interests provide opportunities for meeting like-minded individuals and building social connections.
- Attend Community Events
Stay informed about local community events such as festivals, workshops, or gatherings. Participating in these events can introduce you to new people and create opportunities for social interaction. Look for events through local community centres or online platforms.
Engaging in volunteer work not only allows you to contribute to a worthy cause but also provides opportunities for social interaction. Look for local volunteer opportunities that align with your interests or skills. Volunteering can introduce you to new people and help build a sense of community.
- Attend Classes or Workshops
Consider enrolling in classes or workshops that interest you. This could be anything from cooking classes to art workshops to fitness sessions. Participating in these activities allows you to meet new people with shared interests and engage in social interactions.
Humans have a natural need for social connection and like feeling valued, cared for, and supported by others. As Desmond Tutu once said: “It is the essence of being human – you can’t exist as a human being in isolation.”
If social isolation or difficulty in connecting with others is causing you significant distress, consider working with a therapist, as they can provide guidance and strategies to overcome challenges and improve social connectedness.