The toxicity of social disconnection: Accounting for social wellbeing in wellness programs

by Terry K Borsook, PhD
in Blog

Humans are supremely social animals. We work, learn, play, pray, eat and sleep in the company of others and most of us wouldn’t want it any other way. We seek out others to celebrate our triumphs and also to mourn our losses. To be surrounded by those we love is among life’s greatest joys, while being rejected is among life’s greatest agonies. Almost everything we do takes place within circles of social communities.

Thus, in a very real sense, the social fabric in which our lives is woven is as critical to our wholeness as the skin that covers our bodies. As such, a rip in this social fabric might be as menacing to our wellbeing as a cut in our flesh. It has been argued that the need for human belonging and acceptance is a fundamental human need, akin to water, oxygen and sex.[i] Successful wellness programs will need to take the critical importance of social wellbeing into account.

The World Health Organization definition of health has encompassed the social sphere since 1948, specifying that health is “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity” (italics added). The critical role played by social factors in health and wellbeing has thus been long suspected. Over the past 3 decades, an abundance of research has consistently lent considerable scientific support to this belief. We now know that social disconnection is toxic to human health.

A recent meta-analysis[ii] combining the results of 148 studies, followed more than 308,000 participants over 8 years. They found that for every 1000 highly socially connected people who were alive at the end of the study period, only 520 of their less connected counterparts survived! This puts social disconnection on par with the worst culprits in raising risk of mortality, including smoking, inactivity and obesity!

Loneliness can also be a killer. A study of more than 1600 individuals over age 60 compared mortality in lonely vs non-lonely people over a period of 7 years. People reporting feeling lonely were substantially more likely to experience functional decline and an increased risk of death.[iii]

One way by which social disconnection works its villainy is through negatively impacting immune function. In a series of studies, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University exposed healthy undergraduates directly to the viruses that cause colds, then quarantined them for 5 days.[iv] The researchers consistently found that people lacking social interconnectedness were almost twice as likely to come down with a cold, compared to those with more robust social integration.

Another mechanism by which social disconnection negatively impacts has become evident through an extensive line of research demonstrating that our emotional state and health behaviors are contagious, spreading among those in our social networks. For example, in one study, the researchers examined the social networks of some 12,000 individuals and looked at their weight over a period of several years. They found that a person’s chance of becoming obese increased by 57% if he or she had a friend who became obese during a given time interval.[v] In another study, it was found that smoking cessation by a spouse decreased a person’s smoking by 67%. If a friend quit smoking, that decreased chances of smoking by 36%.[vi] A similar pattern of findings have been reported with respect to happiness. The results of this body have work has been summarized in a recently published book by the authors.[vii]

In sum, our social sphere can have a profound impact on our health and wellbeing. Lacking social connections puts us at increased risk of disease and mortality. People who keep their weight under control, exercise regularly, and eat healthily will still be at high risk of a wide range of physical and mental illnesses and almost certainly diminished productivity at work if they suffer from social problems. Successful wellness programs must take account of this.

 [i] Baumeister & Leary (1995). The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 117(3), 497-529.

[ii] A review that systematically combines the results from multiple studies in order to achieve greater statistical power.

[iii] Perissinotto, Cenzer, Covinsky (2012). Loneliness in older persons: A predictor of functional decline and death. Archives of Internal Medicine. 172(14), 1078-1084.

[iv] Cohen (2004). Social relationships and health. American Psychologist. 58(8), 676-684.

[v] Christakis & Fowler (2007). The spread of obesity in a large social network over 32 years. New England Journal of Medicine. 357(4), 370-379.

[vi] Christakis & Fowler (2008). Dynamic spread of happiness in a large social network: Longitudinal analysis over 20 years in the Framingham Heart Study. British Medical Journal, 337:a2338.

[vii] Christakis & Fowler (2009). Connected: The surprising power of our social networks and how they shape our lives. Little, Brown and Company: New York, NY.

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