In 2019, the World Health Organization declared that loneliness is a major health concern worldwide. A year earlier, the UK appointed its first Minister of Loneliness.
Fast-forward to the socially distanced present-day reality of COVID-19. For many of us, loneliness is no unfamiliar feeling, as we begin the school year away from our campus and peers.
In a recent review published in Trends in Cognitive Sciences, Danilo Bzdok and Robin I.M. Dunbar explore the effects of social isolation on our health and psychological well-being. Drawing on evidence from various disciplines over recent years, Bzdok and Dunbar conclude that loneliness may be the most potent threat to humanity’s survival.
Among all existing species, humans depend longest on other individuals, say Bzdok and Dunbar. Loneliness sprouts from what they describe as a ‘learned social helplessness’; a psychological spiral we trap ourselves in, reinforced by a skewed perception of how others interact with us. This could include feelings of exclusion, negative social cues, or feeling socially threatened.
Evidence shows that loneliness impairs the immune system, thus reducing resistance to disease and infections. Effects include an increased risk of inflammation and hypertension in old age. One study found that having social bonds triggers the release of your body’s killer cells, designed to destroy harmful bacteria and viruses.
Bzdok and Dunbar conclude that the more immersed we feel in a community – engaged with our friends and fellow human beings – the happier, and healthier, we are. For example, our friends tend to act as our social support. According to the 2008 Framingham Heart Study, we strongly mirror emotional changes in our close friends, both figuratively and geographically: If a happy friend lives within a 1-mile radius, you are 25% more likely to be happy.
Now, one can imagine that the more friends we have, the better. However, between school, work, long commutes, and life’s responsibilities, we only have so many hours in the day to befriend as many people as we can.
The review notes that some friends we hold closer than others, devoting about 40% of our daily social time (in total, about 3.5 hours), to them. The study finds that our five closest friends and family members matter the most in combatting loneliness and its adverse effects.
Of course, many of us now rely on Zoom calls and Netflix parties to spend quality time with our friends. Given our transition online, do we miss out on the social benefits? Not necessarily.
Bzdok and Dunbar note that the COVID world of digital interactions is not so different from in-person. We follow the same general patterns, frequencies of contact, and we’re just as satisfied (or sometimes more) to send memes in a group chat of our top five friends. Similarly, we use emojis to replace the obvious facial cues we use in-person.
Nonetheless, staying socially engaged during COVID can be a challenge for students who already have a lot on their plate. But entering social networks has significant health benefits, while social isolation can cause harm. So, what are some tips for having a social semester?
Bzdok and Dunbar suggest that you create opportunities where friendships can develop naturally. Friendships are not forced; they involve a willingness from both parties. Thankfully, UTM offers many campus events and occasions to make a new friend.
Another bonus UTM offers is an abundance of student clubs. The study found that joining social groups (i.e. sports, hobby groups, etc.), can reduce the risk of depression by almost two-thirds.
Thirdly, choose video for your calls. The study emphasizes that the visual component of an interpersonal encounter plays a key role in creating a more satisfying digital experience.
Lastly, try singing – an activity known for its dramatic, immediate effect in lifting one’s spirits and creating a sense of social engagement.
Being social creatures by nature, humans struggle in isolation. This semester, we may feel the absence of the physical UTM community – bonding over free breakfast, group study dates in the library, and walking through campus with our friends. Yet, our social needs remain, and our online tools, though not the same, can lead us to healthier and happier lives.