Social Connection: It’s a Health Goal

“Write about loneliness,” suggested a blog follower and old friend (thank you!).

Loneliness — a feeling that you lack sufficient social support and connection with others — is considered an epidemic these days, with health consequences compared to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Its negative effects on older adults have been clearly demonstrated. And surveys point to millennials as “the loneliest generation.”

Why? My theory is that people in the 1950s weren’t actually so thrilled to be bowling together (there was a lot of forced conformity going on), and we don’t really want to live in small towns — otherwise we would. But human connection takes extra effort in today’s world, as we move frequently, live in smaller households, and turn away from traditional social structures like church. We like the freedom. But we miss the support.

Nuevo Laredo, 2017: vigorous aqua exercise with Viviana and David, followed by pomegranate tequila in the hot tub

The rise of social media also seems to fuel this feeling — maybe because it takes the place of more valuable in-person contact, or perhaps due to constant (unpleasant) comparisons between ourselves and others.

Falls Church, yesterday: chatting with Viviana and David on WhatsApp before bed 🙁

Hmmm, is social media the junk food of human connection? We feel like we’re being nourished by it, but we’re not getting all the vital nutrients we need (warmth, touch, shared activities). A doctor writing on the Harvard medical blog acknowledges that social media can be both helpful and harmful, and he recommends “snack-sized doses.”

During the first 6 to 12 months after moving to a new country (which I’ve done seven times, ugh), I always felt lonely and disconnected, with only virtual/at-home projects and faraway friends. This was true even though I had my spouse and sometimes kids with me, along with the built-in advantage of being more of an introvert, so I truly enjoy solitude and working on my own. I can only imagine what it’s like for an extraverted single person to move abroad.

In two places, Leipzig and Guayaquil, ten years apart, I went through periods of serious depression, which I now recognize were closely related to loneliness. This was both social isolation — actually knowing very few people in my environment — and a lack of close connection with those around me, aside from my family.

During my depressive episodes, I remember seriously thinking that the world, and even my family, would be better off without me. Of course I realize now that that is absurd, but at the time I felt like no one knew me or valued my skills, and I was just filling a generic role of spouse and mother, and doing a lousy job of it.

In both cases, my work and most of my interactions with friends were online (email-based in those days). These surely saved me from an even worse fate (thank you SUNwriters!), but they were not enough.

Back in Leipzig together, celebrating 20 years of friendship

I gradually recovered with the help of very small steps. In Leipzig, I got out of the apartment to swim laps at a local pool, and I volunteered to teach English once a week at my son’s German kindergarten. (We all got into it so enthusiastically that when one boy was tested for first-grade readiness, he shouted out the colors in English rather than German: Bluuue! Greeen!) And most importantly, I grew closer to a rather random group of women who met regularly to speak Spanish. My friendships with two of those women, Martha and Nohem, forged in dark times for me, are still strong and intimate today.

In Ecuador, on my birthday in February 2009 (after we had moved there the previous summer and my father had passed away in November), nobody outside my family knew or cared what day it was, so I rather desperately invited Tracy, a South African woman I knew from the kids’ school, for lunch at my house. I wasn’t the only one struggling in Guayaquil; frequent carjackings and the recent death of a young American mother because she didn’t get medical care in time had everyone scared and demoralized. Tracy suggested forming an expat support group, the Guayaquil Network, which became a lifeline for many of us. Through it, I met friends I could depend on, like Grace and Aleida, and I found interesting volunteer opportunities, like visiting the sweet, kind residents with Hansen’s disease [leprosy] at Damien House — that’s where I was in the photo from three weeks ago serving soda and ice cream.

I also started inviting a friend, Marce, to work out in my tiny swimming pool, in imitation of the water aerobics classes I used to enjoy in Virginia. Spending time with her and thrashing around together to Trinidadian music lifted my mood all day — and now I can see that this was my first time ever leading someone in exercise (thank you Marce!), a portent of a future that I couldn’t possibly imagine at the time.

And I did resort for a while to medication for depression, anxiety and insomnia in Ecuador (perimenopause was surely no help), which I was fortunately able to discontinue within a year.

Me with Grace at the therapeutic mud baths in San Vicente: you cover yourself with mineral-laden mud from a natural pool and let it dry on your skin. Connection through shared adventure and vulnerability

What helped me the most were small, even silly things. Teaching the names of colors to 5-year-olds. Jogging around in a pool with Marce to “The Bees’ Melody” by Lord Kitchener . But one small step led to another. I gradually felt like I was starting to belong. Opportunities arose to help others and to feel needed.

I dealt with a lack of connection mainly after moving to new countries. But there are so many reasons for experiencing loneliness. Friends have left town or passed away. You’ve retired or lost your job. You’re widowed or divorced, or your life circumstances have changed in other ways. Or maybe you’ve been sailing along enjoying solitude and independence, but you now realize that something is missing.

Enough theorizing and stories about me; let’s get down to some ideas about what to do about all this. The following is from my personal experience, research and the wisdom of awesome clients, friends and podcast hosts 🙂 :

Examine your negative assumptions. Try a “brain dump” — find a quiet moment, think about your social situation and jot down all the thoughts that come up. Your brainstorming mind may come up with great ideas. Or you may discover a bunch of exaggerated, unjustified claims, like “I always mess things up” or “It’s not worth trying to make friends, since it never works.” If you find negative generalizations like this, ask yourself if you would say them to someone you care about who is in a situation similar to yours. If not, they are cognitive distortions — buggy programs that have gotten stuck in your operating system.

Fortunately it is possible and very useful to train ourselves to recognize and debug these distortions — here’s a great website on the topic, and an accessible and helpful book recommended by a psychologist (hi Fran!). I recognize now that I was full of this malware for decades before I did some intensive work on it during my time in Mexico. Now it’s as serene as a Caribbean beach in my head; the discouraging chatter and negative self-talk have quieted. Why don’t we learn this in school?

The inside of my head now: calm with just a few passing clouds

Snack on social media, like the Harvard doctor suggests. Find the right balance for you between online socializing and meeting up with real people (this includes pets, networking contacts, and fellow participants in a yoga class).

Look for groups, and if you don’t find one, be bold like Tracy in Guayaquil and start one. Yes, it’s awkward to show up at a group meetup for the first time, even if it’s focused on an activity you love. Maybe you can get someone you know to go with you. If the group itself isn’t enjoyable, it can still be a way to find individuals who share your interests. I don’t particularly enjoy chatting in large groups over coffee, but the key friends I met in the Spanish-language group in Leipzig and the Guayaquil Network perhaps literally saved my life. And some of my new close friendships were a surprise: people from different cultures, some of them 20 years older or younger than me.

Maybe you’ll run a 5K in Mexico alongside a Lucha Libre guy! It was only because Ashley was pregnant that I had a chance of keeping up with her 🙂

Do something challenging with others. A shared feeling of accomplishment and mutual support is a great way to build connection, as corporate team-building consultants know. I found this through volunteering, the water exercise with Marce, and even the mud baths.

Be the real you. A longing for connection is a hunger to be seen, to be valued and accepted as we really are. You surely accept other people with their flaws. Let them do the same for you. Your greatest weaknesses are likely closely tied to your greatest strengths: you are a flawed superhero! And that’s the kind of superhero people love — not a fake, perfect plastic toy. Some people might not choose the real you as a close friend, and that’s fine. Chasing their friendship by faking the traits they value will never be satisfying. The people who appreciate the real you are real friends.

Dare to be vulnerable. Brene Brown, author of Daring Greatly, points out that in order to achieve anything (including authentic relationships), we need to be prepared to fail, to admit our mistakes, and to ask for help. Here’s a great article and here’s a TED talk where she explains her ideas.

The difficult thing is that vulnerability is the first thing I look for in you and the last thing I’m willing to show you. In you, it’s courage and daring. In me, it’s weakness.

Brene Brown
More vulnerability: couldn’t resist another mud bath photo, I’m second from the right

To work on this, you can gently push your boundaries by opening up in small ways. Of course this is related to being the real you, owning both your strengths and your flaws.

You may wish for big, boisterous groups of friends, or perhaps (like me) just a few people to deeply connect with. Maybe you just want to make the relationships you already have more authentic and honest.

My third year in Mexico: I had to be very vulnerable and real to break through the formality of being “the boss’s wife” to these amazing, beautiful people, and I think I finally succeeded

Like fitness and healthy eating, this is something you can work toward, in small steps, by rooting out your negative self-talk and limiting beliefs, setting yourself challenges (like “have lunch with a different person once a week” or “go to a new meetup each month”) and practicing new habits (like remembering and using people’s names, if you struggle with that like I do). Just like eating a few more servings of vegetables or lean protein each day, or working out for 10 minutes at a time, these small steps may not seem like much, but they can take you to a much healthier place over time.

According to Dr. Emma Seppala, a feeling of social connectedness (whether to a large group or just a few friends) strengthens the immune system, lowers the risk of anxiety and depression, and even increases average longevity.

Social connectedness generates a positive feedback loop of social, emotional and physical well-being.

Dr. Emma Seppala

And in this TED talk, Robert Waldinger reports on the findings from the longest-running study of human health: the quality of our relationships is the best predictor of health and longevity.

Definitely a worthwhile health goal! Please share in the comments what you do to get or stay connected. And see you next week, when I blog about my quest for Real Food on the Road!

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