Most social animals suffer when they’re kept on their own for too long. Mice get sick and starlings get stressed. Even fruit flies experience shorter lifespans if they don’t get to hang out with other fruit flies.
Unsurprisingly, we humans suffer greatly when we don’t get enough social interaction.
It’s easy to underestimate the value of social connection and discount the risks of social isolation. But the research is there and it’s pretty stark: social isolation is as damaging to your health as smoking. Developing friendship and staying connected to other people is a vital step towards staying healthy and enjoying your life as much as possible.
Find a Community
One of the easiest and best ways to grow your connections (in a real, meaningful way, not a LinkedIn way) is to join a group that’s already a community.
But what’s a community? Obviously, “community” means different things to different people. For our purposes - discussing social connection and social isolation - a community is any group of people where the members 1) care about each other and 2) see each other on a regular basis.
Your family is often a great example of a community. But if they live in another country and you can’t spend time with them, you need to look elsewhere for your social connection.
Religious groups, sports groups, and even colleagues at work can form communities that foster social connections. If you feel that you could do with expanding your social connections, it might be the perfect time to try an activity that you’re interested in. This is exactly what happened when I started training at a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu gym a few years ago. I wanted to try the sport but after a few months I started noticing all the extra conversations I was having outside of the gym because of the connection I shared with a whole new group of people.
Build Your Own Community
More challenging than slotting into a preexisting community but often more rewarding, building your own community is a super interesting way to nourish a rich social life for yourself and your friends. It’s something I’ve been trying to make happen for a few years.
It’s a difficult process to describe because it seems to happen organically as people from different areas of your life get to know each other. Occasions like birthdays, housewarmings and other social gatherings can bring separate groups of friends together and spark new friendships between your friends. Gradually, your web of relationships becomes more connected and the community of people that you’re at the centre of become stronger.
Sustain Your Connections
Finally, sustaining your existing connections is one of the most important steps to avoiding social isolation. As the saying goes, “if you need a friend, be a friend”. It’s just as important to intentionally keep up old friendships as well as to forge new ones. Unfortunately, it’s often more difficult too.
We often drift away from people for physical and emotional reasons. Living in different places makes it a challenge to stay in touch in a meaningful way. And sometimes friendships come to a natural end if you change and grow apart. But a lot of the time, you can keep up a connection through just a little care and attention every so often. Think of it as investing in a future phase of the relationship!
It can be really hard to push yourself to make connections and become involved with new people. Particularly, if you’re a bit of a loner by nature. The thing is that we need other people just as much as we need food, exercise and sleep. Forcing yourself to go out and make connections is tough, but it’s also vital to a full and healthy life.