Being a loner by nature, large crowds quickly exhaust and overwhelm me. I am much more comfortable curling up with a book or taking long walks on my own. For my own sanity, I make it a point to carve out time alone - in nature if at all possible. We are lucky enough to have made a big move to a place where I can enjoy the beach on (almost) a daily basis. It is where I feel expansive - where the vast ocean and big skies erase all sense of limits and boundaries. I find it a great place to meditate, read or simple “be”.
Starkly contrasting my deep desire for solitude is my love for entertaining. I love to cook and having friends and family over to celebrate a meal and share stories is my favorite way to spend an evening. I am really lucky this is the case. Why? As it turns out, love, family and social connectedness are strongly tied to a longer lifespan. In fact, one of the common threads among the people who live in the Blue Zones, the areas in the world with the longest lifespans, is a deep sense of community.
Social isolation - or loneliness is a real thing and the more scientists research the effects of loneliness, the clearer it is that having meaningful connections are as important, if not more important than getting in daily workouts and eating clean food. Loneliness can lead to depression and self-centeredness and increases the risk of dying early by over 25%. The physical manifestations of loneliness range from cancer, cardiovascular disease, stroke, inflammation, immune system suppression, pain, fatigue, depression, elevated cortisol levels, high blood pressure and accelerated progression of Alzheimer’s disease. Scientists say it is as big a risk factor for long term health as smoking cigarettes and while just about everyone is aware of the dangers of smoking, loneliness is rarely discussed.
What also may not be so obvious is that in the social media dominated culture of this day and age, those most affected by loneliness are adolescents. In 2015 a study showed there is a correlation between smartphone usage and loneliness in college students. In 2017, another study that found a correlation between smartphone addiction and anxiety, loneliness, and depression. Those spending more than 3 hours per day on a phone are at higher risk of suicide and depression. Apparently virtual relationships don’t hold a candle to real life, face-to-face interactions and meaningful connections.
This makes total sense ancestrally as well. It was essential to stick together during tribal times, as extended periods of isolation could prove to be life threatening. Imagine wandering off on your own in the wilderness and encountering a hungry wild animal. There would be no one around to help protect you - to help you fight or flee.
So, how can we maximize our meaningful relationships while still benefitting from the use of our smartphones and maintaining a social media community? To the rescue are some simple, easy to adopt ideas.
DON’T EAT ALONE. This can take on many forms. If you like to cook, invite your neighbors over for a dinner party. Don’t like to cook, make it a potluck and supply drinks instead. If you have a family, make it a point to share at least one meal a day with them, preferably dinner. During dinner is a great time to catch up with your spouse and children, share stories and laugh together. In addition, venting about the dilemmas of the day can be incredibly stress relieving. And please keep your phone out of sight while eating. Studies have shown that even the sight of a cell phone can increase distractibility and levels of anxiety.
GIVE MORE HUGS. Human contact triggers pressure points underneath the skin that signal the brain. A physical touch stimulates the vagal nerve, which snakes throughout most of the body, interacts with major organs and helps down-regulate responses to stress by lowering blood pressure and heart rate. Touch can lower cortisol levels and release the neuropeptide oxytocin, the love hormone, the body’s natural anti-depressant. I am not implying that we should hug every person we cross paths with. That plan is likely to back fire pretty quickly. I am suggesting that we genuinely offer a hug more freely, especially to family and friends. Wondering how long said hug should last? 20-seconds seems to be the magic number.
VOLUNTEER. Volunteering opportunities abound no matter where you live or what you like to do. Local libraries, churches, schools, hospitals, nursing homes receive volunteers with open arms. If you like to read, contact an elementary school in your neighborhood to read to the kids once a week. Is singing more your thing? Bring a nursing home some live entertainment.
TAKE A COURSE. Find something you’d like to learn more about and take a class. There is no better way to meet people with similar interests.
FIND LOCAL EVENTS. Again, find something that interests you and find events to attend. A great source for this is meetup.com, a platform for finding and building local community.
EYE CONTACT & SMILES. There is no losing with these two simple gestures. They can create the feeling of connectivity and communicate enough warmth to change the course of someone’s day - whether you are on the giving or receiving side of them.
AIRPLANE MODE & NO ALERTS. Make use of airplane mode and turn off your phone alerts. There are many ways to customize your device so that only truly urgent information can get your attention. The less time we spend looking at our phones, the more time we have to engage in eye contact and smiles.
Join us on one of our retreats! They are a wonderful way to reconnect with friends, meet new like minded people and develop lifelong, meaningful relationships.
To sum this post up, I pose a challenge. Make a point of making eye contact and smiling whenever possible this week. See how it affects your mood.
Then tell me about it in the comments.