The Science of Human Connection
Human beings are social creatures. Our journey through life begins with an innate desire to connect, underscored by the remarkable role of oxytocin, often hailed as the "bonding hormone”. Initially triggered by a newborn's cry, oxytocin production in a mother extends beyond breastfeeding, encompassing various expressions of human connection—from holding hands to intimate moments and even interactions with animals. This hormone operates in harmony with neurotransmitters like GABA, serotonin, and dopamine, contributing to anti-anxiety effects, mood regulation, and feelings of pleasure.
More on Oxytocin
Oxytocin appears to fine-tune our social attunement, responding more to social stimuli than nonsocial cues. The profound impact of social connections on health is evident in the groundbreaking 1979 study by Berkman and Syme, revealing a threefold decrease in mortality for those with strong social ties. Remarkably, close social connections emerge as a protective factor, surpassing the influence of healthier habits, emphasizing the vital role of meaningful human connections in our overall well-being.
“Social connectedness is the degree to which people have and perceive a desired number, quality, and diversity of relationships that create a sense of belonging, and being cared for, valued, and supported” (reference in link). Our level of social connectedness has a profound impact on our health and can even influence our life expectancy; one study found that those with strong social bonds have a 50% increased chance of longevity compared to those with lower levels of social connectedness.
Social Bonds and Their Impact on Health
When individuals experience social connectivity and maintain stable, supportive relationships, they tend to make favorable decisions for their well-being, resulting in improved mental and physical health outcomes. Moreover, they exhibit enhanced resilience in dealing with challenging circumstances, stress, anxiety, and depression. Social connection can also play a role in preventing illness and disease such as:
The Positive Feedback Loop of Socialization
Individuals experiencing a heightened sense of connection with others tend to have:
Increased empathy towards others
Greater likelihood to be trusting
Greater inclination to cooperate
Consequently, this fosters a reciprocal dynamic where others become more inclined to trust and collaborate with them, establishing a positive feedback loop that contributes to social, emotional, and physical well-being.
In today’s post-quarantine, mid-pandemic climate, staying socially connected can be a major challenge. After a considerable amount of time spent isolating, getting back into social habits can feel overwhelming, but it is important to make an effort in order to reap the benefits of having strong social ties. Socializing can look different for everyone, whether it be attending in-person gatherings, joining live-streams online, or chatting on the phone. Here are some tips if getting back out there feels like a lot:
Start small: try setting an alarm to call a friend or family member once a week.
Find community online: if in-person gatherings feel overwhelming, try searching the web for communities that align with your values. These could be on Instagram, Twitch, Reddit, Facebook, or private communities.
Remember that everyone in the entire world has the common experience of going through the pandemic, and you are likely not the only one with anxiety or trepidation.
Arm yourself with some coping techniques when venturing into social situations: these could be breathing exercises, or even a mantra to repeat out-loud or in your head.
Release judgment: of yourself and others! We are all just doing our best.
We as humans are highly social creatures and thrive when we feel like we are being seen, supported, and loved within a community. The numerous health benefits expand beyond physical, encompassing mental wellbeing and behavior change as well. While socializing can be difficult for some due to a multitude of factors such as anxiety, isolation or fatigue, making an effort to connect in-person, online or over the phone is well worth it. Remember to be gentle with yourself and find what works best for you.
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