The Big, Important Health Habit We Don’t Talk About Enough

community

We all know that food, exercise, and sleep can have major impacts on our health, and that these are all lifestyle habits that are within our power to change. But there’s another big one that we really don’t talk about enough: socializing.

Research has been showing more and more that social isolation and/or a sense of loneliness can have some serious impacts on health. It has been shown to be a risk factor for high blood pressure, depression and other mental health concerns, poor sleep, changes in gene expression, and even an overall increased rate of death and disease. While this connection has been most often studied in the elderly, it affects us all, and is a very common problem in our modern world.

The good news? There’s a lot we can do to combat social isolation and loneliness. The even better news? Anything that you do to break your own feeling of isolation, is inherently going to help someone else break theirs, too. Here are some ideas that you can start incorporating into your life today.

1. Make a point of connecting with a friend or family member once a day.

Pick up the phone, go for coffee, or reach out to someone you’ve lost touch with on Facebook. Catch up, find out what they’ve been up to and how they’re doing, and you’ll notice that you probably feel more connected already. Showing genuine interest and reaching out can not only strengthen existing friendships and family bonds, but is also a pretty simple way to pull yourself out of a lonely funk. Strong, long-term bonds with friends and family are the best way to avoid loneliness, but as with all relationships, they require some nurturing. Avoid taking these important people for granted, and take the initiative to make sure you stay connected.

2. Strike up a conversation.

Interestingly, a lot of people report feeling lonely even in big cities, where they’re always surrounded by people. But having people around is not the same as connecting with them. This one might sound scary to you, but you’d be surprised at how often strangers will enthusiastically respond to you initiating a conversation. Start small: engage in some friendly and positive chit-chat with your barista, cab driver, server, cashier, or any other person you deal with during your day. It may take some practice, but it’s worth it! Learning to talk to strangers has the great additional benefit of boosting confidence. If talking to strangers feels too overwhelming, try simply making eye contact and smiling at someone. They will almost always smile back. Even this very small gesture can turn someone’s day around (including yours!).

3. Do something kind.

There has been a lot of enthusiasm lately for performing random acts of kindness, and for good reason! Not only can this give you the warm and fuzzies, it helps to build a sense of community and connection with the people living around you. Small gestures, which don’t have to cost you a thing, can mean the absolute world to someone else, and can wipe away that feeling of isolation for both of you. Help that parent struggling to get a stroller onto the bus, or help someone elderly or in poor health shovel the driveway (or brush off their snow-laden car). For more ideas and inspiration, check out this website.

4. Volunteer.

Similar to performing acts of kindness, volunteering can create social connection, and chase away loneliness. A lot of people think of volunteering as selfless, or sometimes even self-sacrificing, but I beg to differ. The benefits to the volunteer are just as great as the benefits to the people they are helping. The wonderful part about providing service to others is that we simply can’t do it without feeling a little better and more connected, ourselves. There are no shortage of volunteer opportunities; try to find one that appeals to you, and that will lead to interacting with other people regularly.

5. Join a group that gets together regularly.

What do you enjoy doing? Whatever it is, odds are that there are other people out there who like it, too, and that provides a natural means of connecting with others. Seek out a group with similar interests, whether that’s a recreational sports league, a knitting group, a book club, or regular board game nights, and commit to attending regularly. Not sure how to find such a group? Try Meetup, a website aimed entirely at bringing like-minded folks together, do a quick Google search, or check with a local store that sells the supplies for your favourite hobby (game stores, craft stores, etc.). Many hobby-related stores will have groups that meet on-site.

6. Do items 1-5 sound terrifying? Make use of the Internet, social media, or even a pen.

People with certain concerns, such as severe social anxiety, may find the above suggestions overwhelming and/or absolutely terrifying. I understand. While I strongly encourage you to seek help with addressing these issues (if you haven’t already), know that you can still make connections in other ways. Stay in touch with friends and family through writing if that’s easier (emails, letters, social media, etc.), and reach out to online communities of like-minded individuals. There are forums and support groups of all kinds available, and they can be a wonderful way to connect and keep loneliness away.