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What is Social Connection?

The concept of social connection is generally associated with the interactions, relationships, roles, and sense of connection that individuals, communities, or society may experience. Social connection has also become a specific term used in social science to represent the multiple ways that individuals connect to others emotionally, behaviorally, and physically. 

In his 2009 book, Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection, the late John Cacioppo, pioneer in loneliness research, defined social connection as something similar to the opposite of being thirsty or lack of pain, i.e. having a normal sense of belonging in relationships.  "...'not lonely' is also like not thirsty, not in pain. Health and well being for a member of our species requires being satisfied and secured in our bonds with other people, a condition of not being lonely that we call social connection."

Cacioppo and others spearheaded new research on the impact of loneliness on health in the last few decades, studying the impact of social isolation and loneliness. Loneliness is social pain, and the emotional region of the brain that is active when lonely is the same region that registers response to physical pain.

The term “social connection” has been proposed to encompass the different approaches to studying social relationships and their impact on life expectancy and quality of life. Cacioppo found that social connection helps regulate our physiological and emotional equilibrium. "The social environment affects our neural and hormonal signals that govern our behavior and our behavior in turn creates changes in the social environment that affect our neural and hormonal processes. Social connection keeps our entire physical apparatus operating more smoothly."

Social scientists like Julianne Holt-Lunstad now measure social connection in three dimensions, the structure, function, and quality of our relationships with others. Structure is the number and variety of relationships, and the frequency of interactions. Function is the degree to which these relationships actually serve various needs, while quality is the degree of positivity of the relationships. Under structural, is someone married, do they have a friends group, etc. Under functional, what functions to these relationships really provide, how much support or perception of support do they really have. What is the actual or perceived availability of the kinds of aid and resources that relationships provide. Under quality, are they really being included in their friends group? Are they married but it is an unhappy marriage?

The NIH relates the structural dimension to social isolation and the functional dimension to loneliness. Social isolation is objectively having few social relationships, and social interactions, while loneliness is a subjective state, a perceived isolation or social deficit of experience from what is desired. Functional can be perceived as loneliness, since it is the subjective quality of one’s relationships, is it more individual. Cacioppo writes, “The solution to loneliness is not quantity but the quality of relationships. Human connections have to be meaningful and satisfying for each of the people involved, and not according to some external measure.” 

The U.S. Surgeon General’s Advisory on the Healing Effects of Social Connection and Community clarifies that social connection is a continuum, a gradient, and also dynamic, changing throughout our lives depending on life events. Further, just because someone does not report loneliness or isolation, this does not mean they have “high levels of social connection.” For example, one who is in a large involved family vs one who only has connection with coworkers at work. While individuals may not report a social deficit, or feel lonely, one may be missing out on high quality close relationships. 

Similar to the term social connection, the CDC discusses “social connectedness,”  defining it as “the degree to which people have and perceive a desired number, quality, and diversity of relationships that create a sense of belonging, and being cared for, valued, and supported.” This echoes the structural, functional, and quality aspects discussed above. Further, they draw attention to having meaningful and regular, social exchanges, the sense of belonging and support from friends, family and others in the community, having closed bonds with others, and feeling loved, cared for, valued, and appreciated. Further, they mention having access to safe public areas to gather.

John Cacioppo talked about the need for relational, collective, personal connection. Intimated connectedness, relational connectedness, and collective connectedness. "We need a circle of friends and family, be affirmed up close and personal, and have a need to belong in collectives, whether university, union, or club."  Similarly, Holt-Lunstad talks writes that the best solution to loneliness is across multiple dimensions the individual, the family and close relationships, the community, and the society. 

Our Loneliness Epidemic

Why is Social Connection so important today?

The U.S. Surgeon General has classified social isolation and loneliness a public health crisis, with over half of all Americans experiencing measurable levels of loneliness. A 2022 study found that when people were asked how close they felt to others emotionally, only 39% of adults in the U.S. said that they felt very connected to others. A study from Cigna released in 2023 reported that 58% of US adults are considered lonely. About 25% of community-dwelling Americans aged 65 and older are considered to be socially isolated. Adults with mental health issues are more than twice as likely to experience loneliness as those with strong mental health. Loneliness and isolation are more widespread than many of the other major health issues of, including smoking (12.5% of U.S. adults), diabetes (14.7%), and obesity (41.9%), and with comparable levels of risk to health and premature death. However, less than 20% who often feel lonely or isolated recognize it as a major problem.

Impact on Physical & Mental Health

Four decades of research has shown those who are socially isolated have an increased risk for early death from all causes. Loneliness and isolation:

  • can increase the risk for premature death as much as smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day 

  • can increase the risk of stroke and heart disease by ~30%.

  • is linked to depression, poor sleep quality, accelerated cognitive decline and impaired immunity

  • increases in suicidal ideation/attempts and self-harm.

  • is twice as harmful to physical and mental health as obesity. 

  • has health impacts equal to having an alcohol use disorder.

  • is associated with increased risk for anxiety, depression, and dementia. Social isolation has been associated with an approximately 50% increased risk of developing dementia.

  • may increase susceptibility to viruses and respiratory illness.

  • among heart failure patients it has been associated with a nearly four times increased risk of death, 68% increased risk of hospitalization, and 57% increased risk of emergency department visits.

Social connection is so important that we are 50% less likely to die prematurely if we have strong social connections.

In his book Loneliness, Cacioppo, demonstrated that the chronic stress on the body due to loneliness and isolation leads to systemic physiological wear and tear throughout our cardiovascular system. Loneliness is associated with higher traces of the stress hormone epinephrine due to overworking of the nervous system on the body’s immune and cardiovascular system. Loneliness leads to more cortisol the next day, greater prolonged inflammation, and increased blood pressure. In addition, he showed that social contented adults are 40% more likely to engage in exercise and have better diet; people experiencing chronic loneliness find life events more stressful; they tend to respond more pessimistically to challenges and and find positive things less positive; and people experiencing loneliness have been found to have worse sleep.

Impact on Public Safety & Trust

  • Social isolation has been found to be the most important external indicator leading to attacks by mass shooters. 

  • Isolation and loneliness has led to reduced trust in government and among neighbors, rise in hate groups, and lack of belonging. 

  • In the 1970s, 50% of Americans felt that “most people can be trusted.” In 2012, this figure has reduced to 33%.

  • Social disconnection has led to doubling of hate groups in the last 20 years.

As the Surgeon General reports, "Every level of increase in social connection corresponds with a risk reduction across many health conditions. Further, social connection can be a proactive approach to living a fulfilled and happy life, enhancing life satisfaction, educational attainment, and performance in the workplace, as well as contributing to more-connected communities that are healthier, safer, and more prosperous."

The Social Connection Circle seeks to respond to this societal crisis by increasing our opportunities to connect on a system level. Join us in our initiatives here.


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