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The desire for meaningful social connections is inherent in human nature. Loneliness or perceived isolation results in difficult and painful emotions that arise when a person experiences a discrepancy between her desired and actual social relationships.
Loneliness is pervasive. Since 1980, the percentage of American adults older than 45 years who say they are lonely has doubled from 20 percent to 40 percent. This growing social isolation has dire physical, mental, and emotional consequences.
Social isolation can impair immune function and increase inflammation, which may contribute to the development or worsening of numerous health issues such as:
Loneliness increases the risk of these diseases and can also lead to premature death. For example, a study shows that isolation increases the risk of coronary heart disease by 29 percent and stroke by 32 percent. Those who feel unsatisfied or lacking in their social interactions are more likely to die prematurely. Loneliness impacts mortality risk at rates that may be comparable to well-established risk factors like smoking and obesity.
A lack of strong social support also exacerbates the effects of other health and psychological stressors. You have likely experienced that facing a trauma, illness, or life struggle is much more difficult when you are going through it alone.
Loneliness triggers the stress response within the body, which causes the body to release stress hormones like cortisol and epinephrine and shift its energy and blood supply toward survival functions like fighting and fleeing a perceived danger. This reaction can lead to efforts at self-preservation and increased alertness to search for potential threats, which contributes to disrupted sleep, imbalanced hormones, and an increased tendency towards further isolation.
Despite the stigma, loneliness is not a fault or the result of poor social skills. Science suggests that socially isolated people may be exceptionally sensitive to social cues. This increased likelihood to perceive ambiguous social cues negatively leads them to take on a self-preservation mindset.
Whether you thrive with lots of social interaction or tend to be a quiet introvert who prefers a few deeper connections, you don’t have to go it alone! Consider these approaches if you want to grow the meaningful connections in your life.
In this tech-savvy society, popularity can be judged based on the number of “friends,” likes, or followers you have on social media sites. While many are spending more time online and using social media, studies show that the amount of time young people spend on Facebook is inversely related to how happy they feel throughout the day.
Social satisfaction does not result from having large numbers of friends but instead is based on the quality of human interactions, therefore the key to reaping the benefits of social support is to focus on the quality of meaningful relationships. Having people you can depend on and who depend on you in return enhances life satisfaction and health.
Pets are loyal companions who bring meaning and joy into your life. For those who are capable of caring for a pet, adopting an animal can be a wonderful way to find companionship.
Others may receive many of the benefits of a furry friend by volunteering with a local animal shelter or joining a program that pairs people up with a shelter dog as a running partner. This is a great way to feel like a part of something greater and to give while receiving love and appreciation in return.
Animals teach you to pay attention to the world around you and how you interact with it. They help you learn to appreciate the present moment and open up your heart to unconditional love. The human-animal bond is profoundly powerful and healing.
Kindness enhances your connections with yourself, with those you interact with, and with the world around you. Living your life from a place of unconditional kindness, for yourself and others, is a key element of mindfulness practices. When you act with kindness and compassion toward yourself and those around you, you add a much-needed ease and grace to your life
One way to practice compassion and kindness is to give without expecting something in return.
Knowing that you are a valued and contributing member of society enhances your social and emotional well-being.
Compassion and kindness connect individuals at a soul level and pull you up when hope seems lost. When you are supported and connected, you can be hopeful.
The truest solution for finding meaningful connection is to start with recognizing your own completeness and wisdom. Building a connection with yourself is the first step in building fulfilling and meaningful relationships with others.
Trust your gut, give yourself permission to grow, and live your life on purpose. To do this, get in touch with what truly drives you. Allow yourself to start listening within and become comfortable with your intuition. As you more clearly connect with what matters the most to you, you can more confidently choose those relationships that nourish your soul.
Relationships reflect who you are inside, so you need to know and trust yourself first. Through self-care, meditation, yoga, contemplation, and self-reflection, you can get to know your inner world more deeply. This will build self-compassion and vulnerability, which will move you towards allowing yourself to embody your core values and be who you are truly meant to be.
*Editor’s Note: The information in this article is intended for your educational use only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or other health programs.
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