Social connection and mental health
Last week I spent my non-client day in a CBD coworking space and my soul literally beamed with happiness. I smiled like a lunatic at people in the elevator. I’ve apparently been away from an office too long because I couldn’t work the boiling water tap. However, my kitchen ineptitude led to incidental conversations with strangers, which was like music to my extrovert ears.
I love working 1:1 with clients in my relaxed backyard studio, but I had acutely missed going to an office and being around co-workers. And it was really bumming me out. So my new year’s resolution was to prioritise my own social connection and mental health.
Getting the right level of social interaction is essential for good mental health. You’ll instantly know when it’s too much (shopping centres at Christmas time) or too little (let’s not dwell on the past 2 years).
My day in the office got me thinking about the different types of social connection we need, and how social connection and mental health are intricately linked.
Why is social connection important for mental health?
Social connection and social support act as a protective element for both your physical and mental health.
Social connection, physical and mental health are intrinsically linked.
Good social connection is linked to thriving in life. If you ever needed a reason to prioritize social connection over sitting in your home office, there’s a big one.
The benefits of good social connection
Good social connection is associated with:
- A 50% increase in chance of longevity (i.e. the likelihood of a long life)
- A strengthened immune system and better recovery from illness (I’ve written about the link between chronic stress, depression and lowered immune system).
- A decrease in levels of depression, anxiety
- Higher levels of self-esteem
- Connection also leads to a positive feedback loop where you start to feel better about yourself and about others, feeling that you can trust people and feel empathy for them, which in turn improves your social connectedness.
(Read more here)
“Collective effervescence” in a group
In her book “The Power of Fun: why fun is the key to a happy and healthy life” award-winning journalist Catherine Price talks about ‘collective effervescence’ (a term originally coined by Emile Durkheim in 1912). It’s the euphoric feeling you get when joy spreads through a group. You are quite literally ‘infected’ by the bubble of joy and laughter in the group.
(It’s why we totally lost the plot in my Flamenco class when I flicked open my hand fan with such force that it flew across the room, narrowly missing my friend’s head).
This is one contagious state you want to catch!
The problems with low social connection
Low social connection is linked to a risk of poor mental health. It is also associated with the risk of addiction, and of developing or worsening of a pre-existing mental health issue. (Read more)
Low social connection is linked to depression and, sadly, dying earlier than people with good social connection. (Read more).
What type of social connection do you need?
Do you need emotional support (someone to talk to)? Or perhaps what we call ‘instrumental support’ (someone to help with life e.g. removing the dead mouse from the kitchen).
We are so used to prioritising work and other people. But my request, no my plea, is that you prioritise social connection so that you thrive physically, emotionally and mentally.
The tricky question for most people is “How”?
How can I increase my social connection?
For some this will feel daunting or even out of reach. I recognise that it’s not easy, especially as adults.
As technology increases our online connection, our level of in-person connection has decreased. (Have you noticed how quiet the train is these days because everyone is glued to a tiny screen).
Please know that the loneliness you feel is not a reflection on you as a person, but more of an echo of how our lives and our sense of community have changed. But you can remedy this!
Here are some ideas for starting out slowly and building those social connections.
First of all, think about what YOU love doing and see if there are other people out there already doing it. Try out existing group activities you’re interested in and see if these people are your cup of tea:
- Workshops e.g. pottery or Thai cookery
- Your office social club (even the co-working offices have events)
- Movement classes that you like e.g. boxing classes
- Meetup groups
- Men’s Shed
- Sporting clubs
- Pub choir
- Special interest groups e.g. the Beagle Club
- Volunteer e.g. SES, a community group or a religious organisation you’re into.
Do things you enjoy and see if there are people there that you’d like to hang out with more.
Prioritise in-person connection over technology.
What size and duration social connection do you prefer?
We all have our preferences for the duration of contact and the size of group. Even those of us who love time by ourselves to recharge, also get a positive mood boost out of moments of social connection.
“Interacting with other humans tends to have mood-boosting effects, even for introverts.” Catherine Price.
Have you ever thought about your preferences?
Do you get a frisson of energy from being in a crowd of 50,000 people at a rock concert? Or perhaps that is your personal idea of hell.
Perhaps you thrive in a small group of maximum 6-8 people, so that the group doesn’t break into sub-groups, and there is just one topic of conversation going on at once.
Or maybe you prefer 1:1 contact. There is no right or wrong with this, just your personal preference.
Strangers or your closest ‘peeps?
Do you prefer to hang out with your nearest and dearest? Or do you like being with a bunch of strangers (e.g. at a workshop) where you can enjoy the cloak of anonymity and really be yourself?
For more ideas
For some ideas on increasing your level of social connection go to my article “Feeling lonely? Maybe you need a Moai”
Catherine Price also has some tips on how to break up with your phone so that you can talk to people in real life (gasp!)