Social Isolation

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Here’s a bit from a book I’ve been reading, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, by Robert Sapolsky.  It’s a good book.  I recommend it.  Though it’s a bit more heady than the light-hearted title sets one up for.


“The impact of social relationships on life expectancy appears to be at least as large as that of variables such as cigarette smoking…”




“For the same illness, people with the fewest social connections have approximately two-and-a-half times as much chance of dying as those with the most connections…”


He goes on to explore variations in cause and effect (like whether this is based on our spouse making sure we eat properly), and whether the feeling of isolation is associated with a damping down of the immune system, which it is.


Luckily one doesn’t merely need to be socially isolated for these negative health effects.  One also has to feel isolated and lonely.  Which helps explain why all of us introverts aren’t dying off.  We may not get out much…but we’re happy that way.


Also, we’re talking about long-term feelings of isolation and loneliness, rather than brief episodes.


We probably already have an innate drive to form relationships, even without scientific support for the benefits.  But if we’re in any danger of getting too far out of our hearts and into our heads, now we can rest comfortably in the knowledge that there is scientific evidence in favor of connection.  


It matters that this connection is really nourishing and supportive to us.  If we’re in a subordinate relationship and getting picked on all the time we would be better off alone.


At times connection with others may not seem worth the risk or the trouble.  We have to expose ourselves to the criticism and censure of beings that don’t always manage to speak and act from a place of love.  We may have to expose ourselves in other uncomfortable or risky ways as well.  Plus, it takes energy.  We have to go to some trouble in order to create space in our busy lives for something that sometimes gets trivialized–our social life.  The busier we get the more trivial the social life can seem.


And yet, it’s not trivial at all.  Every health intake form I’ve ever seen asks me whether I smoke, because it’s known to have a huge effect on one’s health.  I’ve also seen plenty of commercials urging people not to smoke.  I’ve never seen one commercial explicitly urging people to form and nurture relationships…or been asked on an intake form how I perceived the quality of my social life.


I want to be transparent.  I’m writing this because I feel concerned that interacting and connecting (we have to interact in order to connect, don’t we?) with others is in some danger of being eclipsed by judgement, the threat of violence, fear and even our own busy-ness and overwhelm…because it’s easier not to.


I just wanted to say something in favor or connection.  Something that carries the authority of science, in case we were in danger of subordinating the guidance we have in our hearts, to all the jumble we have in our heads.


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