Your Immune System Needs You to Be Social
Disconnection from one’s social group leads to higher mortality rates
Imitation, social bonding, and language allowed humans to advance, with each skill reinforcing the others. Happiness itself, research now suggests, is less the goal of social cohesiveness than an incentive — more like nature’s bribe for us to play nicely with others. Even our emotions are not our own, but a side effect of how our social group is organized. The closer people are to the core of a social network, the happier they are. Happiness is not a function of one’s individual experience or choice, but a property of groups of people.
Viewed this way, our emotions are simply triggers for new ties with others. One person is happy and laughs. The laughter and emotion then spread from person to person throughout the network. The purpose may be less to spread happiness than to activate the network, reinforce connectivity, and coalesce the social group.
The reverse is also true. Disconnection from one’s social group leads to higher rates of depression, illness, and mortality. A baby starved of social contact has difficulty developing a regulated nervous system. Young men with few social acquaintances develop high adrenaline levels. Lonely students have low levels of immune cells. Prison inmates prefer violence to solitary confinement. In the U.S., social isolation is a greater public health problem than obesity.
Being social may be the whole point. The things we learn from one another are helpful with the logistics of mutual survival, but the process of learning itself — the sense of connection, rapport, and camaraderie we develop while communicating — may be the greater prize. We may not socialize in order to live any more than we live in order to socialize.
Of course, thriving, happy, connected people experience individuality also. We may be social, but we are also autonomous beings who enjoy exercising free will and independent choice.
Still, psychologists and social scientists recognize that the healthiest ways of expressing our autonomy occur within a larger social context. Making the independent choice to trust other people, or even to engage in self-sacrifice, allows people to feel that they are connected to a bigger project and acting out of concern for the common good. Unfettered communications, a functioning democracy, the right to free expression and assembly, community values, and economic inclusion all enable such activities. Without a relatively open social landscape in which to participate, we can only express ourselves through self-absorption or withdrawal. We experience a limited sort of autonomy, like that of a child exercising independence by refusing to eat dinner.
This dynamic is self-reinforcing. Without socially positive opportunities to exercise our autonomy, we tend toward self-promotion over self-sacrifice and fixate on personal gain over collective prosperity. When we can’t see ourselves as part of an enduring organism, we focus instead on our individual mortality. We engage in futile gestures of permanence, from acquiring wealth to controlling other people. We respond to collective challenges such as climate change through the self-preservation fantasy of a doomsday prepper. These limited attitudes trickle up through our political and consumer choices, making our social landscape less conducive to social cohesion.
Mental health has been defined as “the capacity both for autonomous expansion and for homonomous integration with others.” That means our actions are governed from within, but directed toward harmonious interaction with the world. We may be driven internally, but all this activity is happening in relationship with our greater social environment. We can only express our autonomy in relation to other people.
To have autonomy without interdependency leads to isolation or narcissism. To have interdependency with no autonomy stunts our psychological growth. Healthy people live in social groups that have learned to balance or, better, marry these two imperatives.