Why human connection is essential to our health and how we can improve it.
As an Emotional Resilience & Wellbeing Coach I spend a lot of time working with clients helping them to improve their experience of life, and an important part of this work is to encourage them to start recognising what really makes them happy. Interestingly, even though we live in an increasingly materialistic society, whenever I ask a client to think about what truly makes them happy they rarely mention possessions, instead they’ll talk of shared experiences with others. From something as simple as a hug from a loved one or a family dinner, it can be surprising what actually brings happiness into our lives.
Why we need human interaction.
The evidence is clear, human interaction is not only beneficial but essential to our mental health. That’s why ‘Connect’ is listed as number 1 on The Government’s ‘5 Steps to Mental Wellbeing’ guidelines. But why is it so important? What is it about interaction with other people that has such a positive impact on our health? Well, quite simply, it’s our natural state. If you think about it we are tribal creatures, we evolved as part of a wider community which gave us a sense of belonging and support. This had many advantages, older generations would be on hand to guide younger generations, chores and responsibilities would be shared and everyone had a sense of purpose. But we don’t live like this anymore, social, economic and technological changes make it both possible and often necessary to move away from where we were born, fragmenting support structures and resulting in individuals leading more isolated lives. Technological changes mean that activities such as food shopping and banking require little or no human contact at all, so it’s quite possible that certain sectors of our society e.g. Retired people, homeworkers, stay at home mums etc. can spend days in complete isolation. It’s ironic that some of our most populated cities house some of the loneliest people.
Why loneliness has such a negative impact.
So why does loneliness have a negative impact on our wellbeing? Isolation and loneliness can lead to distorted thinking patterns. When we spend too much time by ourselves it’s not always easy to spot if we’re being rational in our thinking and as our brains are designed to look for threats we can often spend too much time focusing on the aspects of our lives we perceive as negative. Our dependence on technology and obsession with social media can lead us to make unfavourable comparisons to others which can compound our negative internal thinking. It’s important to remember that our feelings don’t come from our hearts, they come from our heads, but most of the time we don’t notice what we’re thinking so we can’t break the thinking/feeling cycle. When we look at it this way, it is easy to see how these patterns can leave us feeling anxious or depressed.
What we can do to improve connection in society.
So, what can we do about it? Let’s be realistic, we can’t turn back time to the community living of days gone by, but if those structures are no longer in place then we must create new ones. We need safe spaces where different generations can come together to share experiences and support each other. Not only can this make people feel valued as part of society again, but it can also help to break down social barriers and bring communities together. This is why I believe initiatives like ‘Chatty Café’ play such a vital role in improving emotional wellbeing and mental health.
If you’re struggling to think of ways to improve your connection to others, you might want to try one of the following:
1. Make time.
Connection takes effort, if you lead a busy life (and most of us do) it takes planning to ensure we spend time with the people we care about. Technology makes it easier than ever to stay in touch, so even if you can’t physically get together with a loved one try and make time for a Skype/Facetime chat or phone call.
2. Meet new people.
Challenge yourself to talk to someone new today, at a Chatty Café perhaps!
3. Be selective.
This may sound counterintuitive when we’re talking about loneliness, but it’s not a numbers game. Spending time around people who put you down or make you feel worse about yourself is not time well spent, it’s ok to let old friends go and make new ones.
4. Try volunteering.
It genuinely feels better to give than to receive. Remember a time when you bought the perfect gift for someone and couldn’t wait to see their reaction when they opened it? This is the same feeling you get when you go out of your way to help someone else. Giving is truly a gift in itself.
Finding like minded people with similar interests to you is both mentally stimulating and a great way to meet new people and extend your social circle.
Shirley Blanch is based in Sussex and teaches mindfulness and emotional resilience to adults and children, both privately and in schools. For more information check out www.getmindful.co.uk