Over the last few months on this blog I have talked a lot about eating, moving, sleeping and relaxing. As I have learnt from others and developed my own model of looking at and improving wellbeing, I have realised that for me one of the most important areas that determines our wellbeing is that of connection. Humans are, for the most part, social animals. At the end of the day, regardless of what we’ve eaten or drunk, how physically active we’ve been, how much sleep we’ve had and whether we’ve done five minutes of mindfulness or not, as humans I believe that we all need connection with others on one level or another for us to truly have a sense of wellbeing. It doesn’t matter whether you are an introvert or an extrovert, whether you like to do your socialising in the pub or via letter or skype, connection is important for our mental wellbeing.
The effect of loneliness on our wellbeing
Much has been made of the five ways to mental wellbeing. One of the five ways is connecting to others. If we look at the converse, as a society we are being made increasingly aware of the impact of loneliness upon us individually and collectively. We now have a minister for Loneliness. This isn’t because they were the MP picked last for the cabinet football team, but because it’s a significant issue in today’s society. The Campaign to End Loneliness quotes some alarming statistics. Loneliness and social isolation are harmful to our health, estimated as being as bad as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. People who are lonely and isolated are more likely to visit their GP, use medication, fall, attend A&E (regardless of long-term conditions) and end up in a nursing home. Just this week, an article was published in BMJ’s Heart journal which concluded that social isolation seems to remain as an independent risk factor for dying after a heart attack or stroke. Loneliness and social isolation have also been associated with an increased risk of hypertension, heart disease, dementia and depression with the overall increased risk of premature death being as high as 25%.
Are we more lonely than before?
Of course, loneliness affects all of us at some time in our lives. Significant events such as changing schools, moving away from home, going to university, starting a new job or suffering a bereavement may be the trigger. It affects people at all stages of life, young or old. It is part of life, often temporary and can push us to reach out and make new positive connections. It’s important to think about that word – connections. We shouldn’t fall into the trap of assuming that if you are “connected” then you aren’t lonely. Many adolescents (the group most affected by this) report feeling lonely even though they are connected, like never before, through social media. We need our connections to be meaningful and that’s where the problem lies. It doesn’t matter how many followers you have on Instagram or how many likes you got on Facebook with your last post. If we’re not careful, our relationships become increasingly superficial. We end up with a lot of friends, but they are either virtual or might as well be for the good it does us. I’m not being down on social media as it has its place, but what really counts is the quality of our connections. Historically these connections have been more face to face with extended families, in local communities and in other common interest groups including faith-based. However, family units these days are more fragmented than they were. People often move away from home when they start higher education or enter employment. Fewer people identify themselves these days as having a religious belief or being part of a formal religious organisation which, whatever views you hold about religion, results in more people not knowing where to look for help in times of significant life events and crisis. Just one or two good quality connections can be all we need to make a big difference to our lives.
Tips for building and strengthening connections.
- try to build a fixed, protected time for this into your week. Prioritise it and organise the rest of your diary around it. If you don’t plan it, it probably isn’t going to happen. It might be for the whole family, or just one or two others.
- Turn off the TV and sit round the dinner table or play a game with your kids. Or just talk. I took advantage of some of my family being away today to have lunch and a coffee with my son. I didn’t have to drill him for information about what’s going on and how he feels at the moment (he actually volunteered some!) because it was a relaxed, natural setting. Also this week our son Luke invited us round for dinner. Luke is twenty-one and has severe epilepsy and a moderate learning disability. He lives in Essex his own flat in a house that he shares with other people with additional needs and is looked after twenty-four hours a day by a wonderful organisation called Zero Three Care. His carers encourage him to have as much independence as possible and this includes cooking healthy meals for himself. He served up a delicious chicken chow mein yesterday and was very proud of himself. We played Operation afterwards, which I lost convincingly. I made sure his brothers did the washing up!
- Try to catch up with a friend you haven’t spoken to for a while. It might just be a phone or video call if they live some distance away. One of my best friends from school still lives up north, whereas I have betrayed my northern roots and become an adopted southerner. We conspire to meet when he’s in London for work and catch up on the phone every month or two.
- Visit someone you know needs extra support at the moment. If they are feeling low or depressed, they may prove elusive. Don’t give up on them…harass them (in a nice way) until they give in.
- Arrange a meal or night out with friends. This is my favourite. Eating and drinking together is a very bonding social experience. My wife informs me that I am already an expert in this area. I tell her that I need to keep up my social skills, that there’s always room for improvement and that’s why we’re all meeting up at a beer festival this weekend. And the pub the week after.
- Speak to someone new at work. Invite them to join the next social event
- Have a meal with a colleague. The other week one of my GP partners and I met up for breakfast together before we started surgery. We don’t often get all that long to talk unless it’s about work. It was a great start to the day.
- This is also part of one of the five ways to wellbeing, giving.
- You could volunteer at a local school, hospital or other community or shared interest group. A number of my patients who have suffered from stress related and mental health problems have found this very beneficial for themselves, as well as benefitting others of course.
When it comes to wellbeing, other people matter.
That’s all for this week. I hope you have found this blog post helpful. Please do leave a comment – your feedback is much appreciated and helpful. Until next week – take care of yourself!
Dr Richard Pile