You do everything right for your health, from tracking food and eating nutrient-dense options to working out regularly, getting enough sleep and hydrating like a champ. (Well, maybe “mostly” on all of that, anyway.) But are you potentially missing a big health booster if you spend more time scrolling social media than hanging out?
Many people focus on taking care of themselves with all the sure-fire tactics but forget social connection is just as critical as food, movement and sleep, according to Emma Seppala, PhD, Science Director of Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, and author of “The Happiness Track.”
“Research has shown that lack of social connection is a greater detriment to health than obesity, smoking and high blood pressure,” she says. “On the other hand, strong social connections can have huge benefits, and may even lengthen your life.”
Here are numerous reasons why you need to use that smartphone to set up coffee dates and gym buddy time, rather than just scrolling through Instagram posts:
STRONGER IMMUNE SYSTEM
Can feeling lonely increase your chances of getting sick? Surprisingly, researchers have found there’s a connection.
In a study done at Carnegie Mellon University, college freshmen were studied for their antibody response to the flu shot, based on their self-reported levels of loneliness and social network activity. Those who felt lonelier and had fewer real-life social connections had a worse antibody response to the vaccine.
Also, researchers added, loneliness was associated with poor sleep quality, which has often been linked to decreased immune system response.
LOWER STRESS AND PAIN LEVELS
When you’re out with friends, especially if you’re a hugger, you tend to be better at regulating your level of cortisol — the hormone most responsible for your stress response.
In a study looking at interpersonal touch and hormone changes, researchers found that even people who embraced a “huggable human-shaped device” while remotely communicating with a friend kicked off a cascade of positive biological changes.
Even better, research has found simple human touch (or even petting an animal) can reduce pain as well as improve mental and emotional health, making it a plus for body and mind.
BETTER HEART HEALTH
What’s good for your figurative heart is also beneficial for your literal one — forging deeper social connections can lower blood pressure, and that reduces your risk for cardiovascular disease and stroke.
This even happens in animals, and research has noted that those housed in groups are less likely to develop atherosclerosis than those separated from others.
Improved blood pressure is partly due to lower cortisol levels, but loneliness also creates other stresses on the body, including increased inflammation, which can also be tough on the ticker. One study noted that poor social relationships were associated with a 29% increase in risk of coronary heart disease and a 32% increase in risk of stroke.
HOW TO CONNECT
Despite all of these benefits, loneliness and isolation are on the rise in the United States, says Seppala, adding that it’s been estimated that up to a quarter of all Americans feel they have no one with whom they can share a personal problem. Social media can exacerbate this, because you can have 10,000 followers and still not feel like you have a single close friend.
“Loneliness is the main reason why people seek psychological counseling,” Seppala notes. “But even if you’re an introvert or struggle to find friends, you can nurture a sense of connection.” She suggests strategies like volunteering, which can help you be around empathetic people, as well as give you a greater sense of purpose. Also focus on self-care, because stress can lead to feeling less connected, and make you less likely to reach out. Start that process of asking others to join you for activities, go to events together or come over for lunch.
Just like other healthy habits, it can feel unfamiliar or awkward at first, but the more often you push through the discomfort, the more routine it becomes. “When we allow ourselves to be seen — when we admit our fears or self-doubt, for example — we connect with others and, in turn, give them permission to be themselves,” notes Seppala. “In sharing our fears and insecurities, we find true relationship.”