A new meta-study of social isolation has come out. It looks at data from 148 different studies with over 300,000 participants. The conclusion is that social isolation can seriously impact your ability to survive. In fact, social isolation can be compared to smoking 15 cigarettes a day for how seriously it seems to negatively impact your health and morbidity.
While this is not really a simple nor straightforward matter, there are studies that indicate isolation is stressful and takes a psychological toll on people. Many people need sounding boards to work out their problems. This is not just an emotional issue, it is a practical one. Humans working together are more able to solve difficult problems.
When you have a health crisis or a personal problem, a strong social group can help make sure you get the care you need. People with cancer who have a strong social network do better. There are many people to make sure small tasks get done, that the person gets driven by someone else to their appointments and that there is someone to talk with to distract them from their misery.
As people get older and their memory and physical abilities begin to fail them, friends and family often play a crucial role in making sure their lives continue to work. In fact, some people die not long after being removed from their social network.
Of course, these are observational studies. So, for example, although depression and social isolation are strongly correlated, it is a chicken and egg problem in that we don’t know which comes first. Does depression cause social isolation? Or does social isolation cause depression?
In some cases, regardless of which actually came first, this can become a downward spiral. Isolation can go hand in hand with deteriorating physical and mental health such that you don’t know how to reach out in order to stop it. It can seem like no one would like you anyway, or like it just takes too much energy to try to do anything. This can create a positive feedback loop where isolation and poor mental and emotional health just breeds more of the same until you can seem to find no way out.
Additionally, it is also well known that bad social connections can be bad for your well being. Consider the fact that when someone is murdered, police look first to their closest connections for possible suspects. Also, consider the standard advice to people with substance abuse problems that they should “change your people, your places and your things.” So, if you wish to live a long and healthy life, choose your friends wisely and try to make whatever social connections you have as positive as possible.
Creating a healthy social network is not a simple matter, and the reasons why one may be lacking a vibrant social network can be complex. But the evidence is clear that social isolation itself strongly correlates to poorer physical and mental health, as well as shorter lifespans.