The report warned of the considerable adverse effects of loneliness and social isolation — comparing it to other leading risk factors for premature death such as smoking, obesity, elevated blood pressure and high cholesterol.
Loneliness and social isolation can be harmful
In my work as a social and behavioural epidemiologist, I have studied how social and community connectedness shapes health outcomes, ranging from HIV to substance use.
For example, my colleagues and I have previously shown that social isolation is associated with a 48 per cent increase in odds for premature death, and that lonely people have 71 per cent higher odds of reporting fair or poor health.
Perhaps just as importantly, Harvard research from the longest-running cohort study ever conducted suggests that warm social relationships are the most important predictor of happiness across the life course.
In other words, people who are disconnected lead sicker, sadder and shorter lives.
Similar to the nutrition, exercise and alcohol use guidelines promoted by many national governments, social connection guidelines have the potential to improve our health and happiness by helping us all prioritize social connections in our daily lives.
They can also raise awareness among health-care providers and policymakers to ensure these experts are taking actions consistent with the latest evidence highlighting the importance of social health.
Promising guidelines for better social health
While everybody’s vulnerability to loneliness and social isolation differs, we all need social connection. Yet, people generally underestimate the benefits of connecting with others and overestimate the costs, which include the emotional labour and mental energy needed to manage relationships and your self-presentation.
Regardless of levels of introversion or extroversion, insufficient social connection is associated with poorer well-being.
Public health guidelines can help raise awareness of the importance of social connection and provide us with a road map for better social health. But what should these guidelines look like?
This is exactly what my team has set out to understand as part of a multi-phased, mixed-method study funded by and conducted in partnership with the Canadian government. So far, we have identified a few promising approaches that each of us can act on right now:
Make sure to have three to five close friendships to call on when you’re in need. Research has shown that individuals who have at least three to five close friends experience the lowest levels of loneliness, anxiety, depression and a range of other adverse health outcomes. Having too many friends can sacrifice quality for quantity. Having too few can leave you alone in a time of need.
Recognize the risks of living alone. People who live alone are at increased risk of loneliness and studies have shown that living alone, particularly for men, is hazardous to your health. That means that if you live alone, prioritizing social relationships may be especially important to you.
Reach out to old friends and don’t be afraid to make new ones. Keeping and maintaining relationships can be hard — especially in today’s fast-paced world. Renewing old friendships can be an easy way to keep your social calendar full, but keeping a healthy level of engagement with new people will make sure your friendship well doesn’t run dry.
Don’t forget the importance of solitude. Just as time with others is important, it’s also important to have time alone. It is perfectly good, and even healthy, to spend time alone. We call this “solitude.” In fact, for some, time with others may even exacerbate feelings of loneliness. Time alone provides an opportunity to restore your social reserves and meet your own personal needs.
Following these and other strategies can improve your health and well-being. However, addressing loneliness, like many of the big problems we face today, will require a whole-of-society response. Public health guidelines for social connection can provide the foundation for such an approach.
Some days I might interact with friends for 3 hours but I also work, which is constant interaction 3 days a week. I come home wiped out. I am an introvert and need copious amounts of down time to recover from interactions. with a house full of animals and a partner, I can’t imagine interacting with others for so many hours every day. I would go stark raving mad. I really do understand the importance of social interaction but it isn’t a one size fits all. Some of us just can’t be THAT social.
I have come to believe at 81, having has lost two siblings to Alzheimer's, and who regularly keeps as up to date on the factors that lead to or can reduce the onset of this disease, that one not only has to nurture social and family connections, but also has to remember to make efforts to remain cheerful, forbearing, patient, kind and empathetic, which are all-important too. A recent study in fact claims that anger, that stalls any efforts to remain connected to others as well as contented with life, can induce symptoms that will eventually lead to full-blown dementia.
In theory, I agree with everything you said here, but in practice, it just doesn’t work that way. I am so blessed to have both very close, supportive friends and close friends and acquaintances. I live lesson 3 miles away from my sons family with five children. I see these children every week, but there is no way I get 3 to 4 hours of social interaction every day I treasure the hours I get and I don’t hear in for anymore now this could be because I’m 80.