, excerpted from his new book, In Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior
, Dr. Leonard Mlodinow argues that social connection is such a basic feature of human experience that when we are deprived of it, we suffer.
To prove that social connection doesn’t just help us survive health problems: the lack of it causes them, Mlodinow references one study, where researchers surveyed 4,775 adults in Alameda County, near San Francisco.
The subjects completed a questionnaire asking about social ties such as marriage, contacts with extended family and friends, and group affiliation. Each individual’s answers were translated into a number on a “social network index,” with a high number meaning the person had many regular and close social contacts and a low number representing relative social isolation.
The researchers then tracked the health of their subjects over the next nine years. Since the subjects had varying backgrounds, the scientists employed mathematical techniques to isolate the effects of social connectivity from risk factors such as smoking and the others I mentioned above, and also from factors like socioeconomic status and reported levels of life satisfaction.
They found a striking result. Over the nine-year period, those who’d placed low on the index were twice as likely to die as individuals who were similar with regard to other factors but had placed high on the social network index.
He says too that our seeking one another when we are hurting inside ourselves, is a natural instinct. In the course of researching this issue for his book, he decided to take a quick look took at a web directory of support groups in Los Angeles.
He found groups that focused on "abusive behavior, acne, Adderall addiction, addiction, ADHD, adoption, agoraphobia, alcoholism, albinism, Alzheimer’s, Ambien users, amputees, anemia, anger management, anorexia, anxiety, arthritis, Asperger’s syndrome, asthma, Ativan addiction, and autism — and that’s just the A’s."
"Joining support groups is a reflection of the human need to associate with others, of our fundamental desire for support, approval, and friendship," he writes. "We are, above all, a social species."
Born needing one another
Mlodinow speaks about how the experience of feeling connected to others seems to start very early in life. In an article
, The Courage to Accept Acceptance, Peter Van Breeman, S.J. references the late Erik Erikson in his book, Young Man Luther, who wrote:
In (his) first relationship man learns something which most individuals who survive and remain sane can take for granted most of the time. Only psychiatrists, priests and born philosophers know how sorely that something can be missed.
I have called his early treasure "basic trust;" it is the first psychosocial trait and the fundament of all others. Basic trust in mutuality is that original 'optimism' that assumption that 'somebody is there,' without which we cannot live.
In situations in which such basic trust cannot develop in early infancy because of a defect in the child or in the maternal environment, children die mentally. They do not respond or learn; they do not assimilate their food and fail to defend themselves against infection, and often they die physically as well as mentally.
Hurt feelings really "hurt"
Again to argue the point that social connection is such a basic feature of human experience that when we are deprived of it, we suffer, Mlodinow writes how having a broken heart is more than a metaphor, that's it is real pain we feel.
He writes: Brain-imaging studies show that there are two components to physical pain: an unpleasant emotional feeling and a feeling of sensory distress. Those two components of pain are associated with different structures in the brain. Scientists have discovered that social pain is also associated with a brain structure called the anterior cingulate cortex—the same structure involved in the emotional component of physical pain.
"It’s fascinating that the pain of a stubbed toe and the sting of a snubbed advance share a space in your brain. The fact that they are roommates gave some scientists a seemingly wild idea: Could painkillers that reduce the brain’s response to physical brain also subdue social pain?"
Take two Tylenol
Mlodinow writes when "the Bee Gees long ago sang “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart?” they probably didn’t foresee that the answer was to take two Tylenol. That Tylenol would help really does sound far-fetched, so the brain researchers also performed a clinical test to see if Tylenol had the same effect outside the lab, in the real world of social rejection."
"They asked five dozen volunteers to fill out a “hurt feelings” survey, a standard psychological tool, every day for three weeks. Again, half the volunteers took a dose of Tylenol twice a day, while the other half took a placebo. The result? The volunteers on Tylenol did indeed report significantly reduced social pain over that time period."
Mlodinow is hardly the first to study the importance of feeling valued and valuing one another in its relation to living longer. The Guardian UK reports
that being lonely and isolated was as bad for a person's health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day or being an alcoholic. It was as harmful as not exercising and twice as bad for the health as being obese.
"We take relationships for granted as humans," said Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a psychologist at Brigham Young University in Utah. "That constant interaction is not only beneficial psychologically but directly to our physical health."
The study, reported
in the journal Plos Medicine, said friends and family can improve health in numerous ways, from help in tough times to finding meaning in life. "When someone is connected to a group and feels responsibility to other people, that sense of purpose and meaning translates to taking better care of themselves and taking fewer risks."
Holt-Lunstad said there was no clear figure on how many relationships are enough to boost a person's health, but people fared better when they rarely felt lonely and were close to a group of friends, had good family contact and had someone they could rely on and confide in.
According to the Guardian
, Andrew McCulloch, of the Mental Health Foundation, said the latest study builds on work that links isolation to poor mental and physical health.
"Trends such as increasing numbers of people living alone and the advent of new technologies, are changing the way in which we interact and are leading both the young and old to experience loneliness. It is important that individuals and policy-makers take notice of emerging evidence and of the potential health problems associated with loneliness."