Over the past few years, we’ve come to know a very different way of living while being isolated from friends and family and social experiences for long stretches of time. Across a range of social experiences, everything became different overnight; simple things like getting a coffee and a complimentary chat with your local barista, or larger events that connected multi-generations of family, were no longer able to happen. This change impacted many of us, creating feelings of isolation and disconnection from our people and our places. The use of social media to communicate, socialise, and stay up-to-date has skyrocketed since the beginning of the pandemic. So many of our daily interactions have been facilitated through platforms like Facebook and Instagram, or the newer platform Tiktok which experienced a huge 40% increase in time Australians spend using this app since the beginning of 2021. But is using social media enough to give us the benefits which come through being connected to others, or do the positive health and mental health outcomes of staying connected need to come from somewhere other than our screens?
The everyday interactions and exchanges that connect us to our closest relationships, to our day-to-day activities, and then right out to our wider community, are important for a very good reason. Research over many years has consistently shown that there are fundamental benefits that come from social connectedness. These have positive effects on both our physical and mental health, and include outcomes like lower rates of anxiety and depression, higher measures of empathy, higher measures of self-esteem, better emotional regulation skills and better physical health. Low social connection by contrast can have a hazardous impact. In their report “Social Isolation and Loneliness” in 2021, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare described the impacts of social isolation as being linked to “mental illness, emotional distress, suicide, the development of dementia, premature death, poor health behaviours, poor sleep, high blood pressure and poorer immune function”. The report also indicated that social isolation produces sustained feelings of decreased life satisfaction and wellbeing.
In the resource ‘Social Connection 101’published by Swinburne Social Innovation Research Institute in 2021, its’ explained that social connection provides three main elements which are fundamental to good physical and mental health; belonging - which is feeling safe by belonging to part of a group and a community, wellbeing - when we have that sense of belonging we experience a set of hormones (oxytocin and dopamine) that make us feel happy and connected, and help – people need people and we can’t do everything that needs to be done on our own.
However, it’s not just the amount of time you spend being socially connected that contributes to positive outcomes. The quality of the experience, or how well we experience it, as well as the variety, both play an important role. ‘Social Connection 101’ describes this in terms of connection being available across a set of concentric circles, beginning with our closest relationships in the middle. As we move outwards there is a circle for good friends, then a circle for our communities which could include things like sports or hobbies, and then the next circle is for the wider community we come in contact within our day-to-day life, like the person who says hello and goodbye to you at Bunnings. And we can also notice that the type of our connection changes as we move through the different circles. The inner circle is a place for compassion, trust and belonging, then moving outward where the features of connection broaden to become more related to experiences of reciprocity and cooperation. Experiencing the different types of connections across the variety of connections is the combination that increases positive outcomes.
So, what are the common elements in activities to look out for which can influence our experience of connection and contribute to a variety of types of social connection?
- Activities that have a common focus and an opportunity to develop trust through collaboration – this could be something like co-coaching a kid’s sporting team or even organising an occasion in partnership with a family member
- Building connection through people and place – an example could be becoming a volunteer to get to know about and help within a pocket of your wider community
- Tapping into the connective power of shared communal activity – story-telling, singing, dancing, and music can also increase oxytocin and dopamine and produce a strengthened sense of connection and belonging.
- Random acts of kindness – these have long been known to not only create a sense of connection but boost feelings of happiness and optimism, and also encourage others to ‘pay it forward’ and create a chain of ongoing benefits that can reach far into the future. This could be something as simple as giving a compliment, sharing an umbrella, or letting someone go in front of you in the supermarket line.
One more thing to consider in staying socially connected is the power of ritual. Having planned elements which contribute to staying connected creates predictability and a sense of shared identity and ‘togetherness’. With your closest friendships, agreeing on a regular time and sharing an activity as a check-in, either face-to-face or over the phone or zoom will scaffold a sense of safety and connectedness. Book in a weekly chat with someone in your family, meet up for a regular early morning ocean swim before work with someone important to you, get a subscription for yourself and your Mum to her favourite magazine, pick a story each month, and spend time talking through what you found interesting. Ritual, routine, and custom cultivate predictability, belonging and connection.
Knowing the importance of a range of social connection across a variety of experiences, where does this leave social media in the mix? Social media is often considered to have positive effects on connection, keeping us up-to-date, providing a feeling of shared experience, sharing common interest. However, it is also an activity which is usually heavily curated to show only the best aspects of ourself or our story, and if good physical and mental health comes through a sense of belonging, this filtered version of life has a potential to amplify what we know creates isolation and disconnection; comparison, insecurity, and rejection. Perhaps keeping this in mind when using social media as a tool for social connection can help us to wisely select how it can benefit rather than undermine our experiences of belonging.
Melinda is a registered psychologist and member of the Australian Association of Psychologists (AAPi). She has more than 20 years experience in government allied health teams, not-for-profit organisations, and private practice. She works at The Psychology Spot.
Brene Brown ‘Atlas of the heart. Mapping meaningful connection and the language of human experience’ Vermilion London (2022)