The Power of Connection
By Melissa Berman
January 24, 2021
Over the past year, words such as isolation, social distancing, quarantine and remote, have filled our minds and colored our lives. Words that describe a necessary reality for us to, quite literally, stay away from each other. The pain of losing our outlet for social connection has been palpable. Loneliness, already an alarming issue pre-pandemic, has become an exacerbated serious challenge for millions and millions of people.
Even pre-pandemic, loneliness increasingly wreaked havoc on our physical, and mental well-being. In the U.S., nearly one third of Americans (28% of households) live alone; and according to a survey by health insurer Cigna, more than three in five Americans are lonely. More and more people report feeling like they are left out, poorly understood and lacking companionship. In Britain, a formal government position was created, the Minister of Loneliness, to create government programs that address ever growing loneliness there. The health implications of ongoing isolation, and lack of social support systems, are well documented and noted to be more dangerous to one’s physical health than cigarette smoking. A landmark study from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, showed that lack of social connection, is a greater detriment to health than obesity, smoking and high blood pressure.
The good news: if loneliness is the problem, connection is the answer.
Modern life and technology may appear to connect us faster, and in more ways than ever before, but that’s not the connection we are talking about. True human connection gives us a sense of belonging, security, even self-esteem. Relating to each other in a connected way, sharing our experiences, and being there for one another, are not just an added bonus to our lives, they are essential. Dr. Ruth Burtman, a clinical and school psychologist who focuses on the power of connection in her work, puts it this way, “Positive interpersonal connections are as important for our mental health, as air is for our survival.” Burtman notes that “there are many studies that show people with more social support, have better outcomes after surgery etc... Especially with heart procedures.”
Indeed, the benefits of connection are well documented and impressive. A Stanford University study showed strong social connection:
People who feel more connected to others, have lower levels of anxiety and depression, higher self-esteem, greater empathy for others, and are more trusting and cooperative. This all adds up to a positive feedback loop of social, emotional, and physical well-being.
So, how do we create and maintain healthy connection during this time, where physical distance is needed to get through the pandemic, and beyond? Burtman suggests, “When we cannot be with our friends or loved ones, we need to find a way to talk to them, or see them virtually or write to them. Most importantly, we need to remember that we are there for them and they are there for us.”
Lauren Hanna, founder of Sonic Yoga, decided to foster new ways of connecting for her clients, in the absence of ‘in person’ classes and gatherings. For many, Hanna says, a yoga studio can be much more than just a place to attend a class. The studio experience provides an open and welcoming community, or Sangha in Sanskrit. This communal experience is at the heart of the yogic tradition. Hanna recently offered, and led, a women’s healing circle hosted on Zoom. “The power of the sacred circle is a healing tradition that has been used since the beginning of time. I created our virtual Sonic Sacred Healing Circle, as a safe space for women to connect, and witness each other’s struggles, so they may heal and grow together. Community and sisterhood are powerful medicine for the soul.” Even in a virtual format, and with most women in the group ‘meeting’ for the first time, the connection between participants happened quickly and deeply. Hanna sees that as a reflection of the strong need, and the connective power, of sharing vulnerabilities.
Another meaningful, and positive way for people to connect, is through volunteering. Most volunteers will admit that the experience is as rewarding for them, as those they are helping. Volunteering brings an inherent sense of purpose and meaning, which is a powerful shared goal to bring people together, and boost well-being. It also can be less fraught than other, more awkward ways of meeting people. Similar to Hanna’s healing circle, it helps people realize they are not alone, and that many share similar feelings and experiences.
The myriad health benefits associated with this activity, include lowered stress, reduced risk of depression, and helps to create new relationships. Alison Thompson, a full-time volunteer who facilitates opportunities through her organization Third Wave Volunteers, sees people’s lives transformed, through joining with others in service. “Volunteering and service is about sharing love. Volunteers come together with open hearts, and through those open hearts we form deep connections. Our volunteers are like a family.” Thompson knows what she is talking about, she met her husband in Haiti, when they both arrived to help after the devastating earthquake in 2010. Volunteering side by side, they fell in love, and married a few years later.
However you choose to do it, even the smallest effort, such as making one phone call a day, can do wonders to boost your sense of feeling connected. This, in turn, will positively impact your health and happiness.