Connection is just as important as eating your veggies

We’ve been taught that in order to be healthy, we should do things like eat plants, engage in physical activity, and avoid toxins. However, rarely are we taught to foster relationships. Our society has not only separated our body from our mind when it comes to health, but it also has separated us from each other. We falsely assume that we are like computers or machines that operate independently, and this assumption has impacted our health dramatically. So, how do we heal and foster health? We do so together!

Last year, I attended the National Wellness Conference and went to a session by Justin Gephart on the impacts of loneliness. I knew that loneliness felt bad and could lead to emotional health conditions like depression and anxiety, but I didn’t know it could impact our physical health as much as it does.

A Cigna study found that “loneliness has the same impact on mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, making it even more dangerous than obesity.” So, why are we not talking about it more than we are? Why are we not offering interventions like we do for things like tobacco cessation and weight management? I recently discussed these and other questions with Gephart.

Justin, it sounds like the research on the health impacts on loneliness have been out for a while now. Why has it taken so long to get to the main stream? And why aren’t we talking about it more?

“Loneliness is a deeply human condition that everyone experiences at one time or another, either short term or long term. It is widely considered to be an evolutionary survival mechanism due to the protective effects of maintaining large social groups that our ancestors enjoyed. Therefore, the issue itself certainly is not new. The lack of mainstream focus, in my opinion, stems from the mental health stigma associated with it. If someone openly admits to suffering from prolonged loneliness, there could be consequences attached to it, such as decreased perception of ‘manliness’ or increased scrutiny on one’s ability to perform their job. Additionally, our society has evolved to focus heavily on the individual. So, admitting that we lack connection may be perceived as ‘weak,’ even though every one of us needs healthy social connections in some capacity to maintain long-term well-being.”

From your studies on loneliness, is it being alone as in isolated, or is it feeling alone even when you are with people?

“Isolation and loneliness can certainly occur simultaneously; however, they are independent. Isolation is the act of being alone. Loneliness is the negative feeling associated with a lack of belonging to a community of meaning or the absence of healthy human connection. Therefore, we can participate in a social setting yet experience feelings of loneliness. Conversely, we can be isolated but experience no feelings of loneliness.”

I remember in your talk at the conference, you mentioned the impact of cellphones and social media on loneliness. Can you explain that again?

The Cigna Loneliness Survey that you previously mentioned provided us with the realization that there was a significant correlation between meaningful in-person interactions and feelings of loneliness. The 2018 survey specifically showed a 20 point variation in loneliness scores between respondents who had daily meaningful in-person interactions and those who did not. The evolution of our culture has provided numerous ways for us to connect digitally, such as cellphones and social media, but those new options significantly decrease our opportunities to experience in-person interactions because it is no longer required to communicate. That is not to say that these new technologies, if used appropriately, cannot be used to strengthen existing social connections and help minimize the risk of loneliness because they most certainly can! The addictive qualities that smartphones and social media and other technologies possess, however, requires incredible discipline in order to maintain that type of engagement.”

I remember you also saying something about being with other people in person in order to pick up on nonverbal (or nonwritten) cues like eye contact, body language, energy, and so on. Can you say more about that?

“The human brain has evolved to utilize a significant amount of brain power to process complex social cues. Robert Putnam in his book Bowling Alone informs us about the fact that computer mediated communication all but removes the enormous amount of nonverbal communication that takes place during in-person conversation. Eye contact, gestures, nods, posture, vocal expressions, and hesitations, among many other nonverbal cues, are mostly irrelevant through text messaging and other forms of technology communication. Our inability to analyze this information, which mostly takes place subconsciously, all but eliminates our ability to truly connect and communicate with each other.”

You’ve been in the wellness field for a while. If you knew back at the beginning of your career what you know now, how would that change your perspective, personal efforts, and programs that you offered?

“I got into the wellness field due to my interest in exercise and it has since evolved from there. Moving into the employee well-being space there was a heavy focus on diet and exercise in the workplace, both of which are incredibly important components of our over well-being and critical contributors to our longevity. However, I am convinced now more than ever that our mental health, specifically related to our social connections and feelings of value, psychological safety, and security, is the foundation to which every other dimension of wellness can succeed and prosper, especially in the workplace.

“Take this article as an example of the influential power of our social networks and organizations we participate in. A study published in The New England Journal of Medicine in 2007 discussed the findings of a study that followed over 12,000 people for 32 years. They found that among mutual close friends if one became obese, the other had a 171 percent increased chance of becoming obese, as well. There is no question that a person’s environment plays a role here. Therefore, the workplace, where the average person spends 90,000 hours of their lives, and the people in it are obviously greatly influential.”

If you could give wellness practitioners and/or businesses any other advice, what would it be?

“Again, I feel that our employee’s mental health should be of the utmost importance. The basis of that, in my opinion, needs to be rooted in feelings of psychological safety, job security, value, trust, and feelings of reciprocal altruism, which can all be improved upon through healthy social connections among co-workers and supervisors. If employees dislike their jobs, are over-worked, over-stressed, and show up scared to be who they are, unfortunately, no amount of step challenges are going to change that.”

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