Recent breakthrough discoveries in neuroscience have concluded that the number one thing you can do to improve the quality of your life, health and happiness is to cultivate a sense of belongingness in your relationships and community. The findings are astounding. Loneliness and a perceived sense of isolation have a more profound effect on our mortality than diet, exercise, excessive drinking, smoking or genetics! The culprit seems to be cortisol, which produces the stress response triggered in our brains when we are socially isolated, causing inflammation and a whole host of other medical maladies.
According to social neuroscientist John Cacioppo, the lonely brain is constantly on high alert. This makes it harder to sleep through the night because this hyper vigilance causes frequent awakenings that prevent us from getting a good night’s sleep. Over time, this takes a toll on our overall health and wellbeing. After all, it is sound sleep that helps us detox and recover from stressful days. We evolved as a tribal species, so when we feel alone, we perceive we are separated from the “tribe”, which then causes our brain to trigger a feeling of being under threat. This threat response can even turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more one feels threatened and alone, the more one become focused on self-preservation and, in turn, suffers increasing feelings of suspicion toward others due to the fear of being judged or further rejected.
As we get older, life changes and the loss of friends and loved ones makes Americans more prone to isolation. It then becomes even more important for us to cultivate a sense of community through more active involvement in clubs, churches, synagogues and ties with our neighbors and friends. Only two generations ago, this kind of effort was largely unnecessary. A sense of collective belongingness was built into our daily lives. In fact, most Americans were born and lived their lives in not only the same town, but often in the same house alongside multiple generations. But today, there have never been so many people living on their own or raising children without a partner or extended family in close proximity to provide help and support. In the 1940’s, less than 15% of Americans lived on their own, but now it’s closer to 25% with 40% of Americans reporting feelings of isolation or loneliness.
When we feel connected to others our brain tells our body to relax and thus turns off the fight or flight stress response that releases that inflammation causing cortisol. One Yale study, cited in Dean Ornish’s bestselling book,“Love and Survival,” found that people who generally felt well loved had fewer coronary artery blockages than those who did not. This is just one example of study after study which finds that feeling loved and connected to others is not only beneficial to our overall wellbeing, but also reduces the likelihood of premature death from all causes by a whopping 230%!
Don’t let these statistics frighten you. It appears that the quality, not the quantity, of our connections make the most overall difference. If you develop at least one close friendship with a trusted, safe person, you will reap the benefits. Further, being altruistic and serving others through volunteer work or helping friends and neighbors, seems to give one even more back in the form of increased feelings of personal connection and well being. Actively look for opportunities to have fun and spend time with friends and family. If you live alone, consider getting a roommate or living close to family.
Most importantly, Cacioppo’s research alerts us to the danger of ignoring our wired in, natural longing for human connection. It is wise to respond to any feelings of loneliness no differently than we would to feeling hungry or thirsty. We have a tendency to ignore this basic fact at our own peril. This research urges us all to take control over the things we can in life. So reach out and nurture new social contacts and your close relationships. As much as Americans have idealized independence and devalued dependency, it is undeniable that we are a social species and our brains are hardwired to connect and stay connected throughout our lifespans. Meeting our vital need for human contact and connection is literally life saving and life extending.