The Science Of Human Connection And Wellness In A Digitally Connected World

Marina Rose, QDNA®
Oct 5, 2017 · 12 min read

Decoding | Recoding The Connection of Disconnection And Loneliness

Photo © Elnur /Shutterstock

The most precious commodities on this planet are our health, love, and happiness. Regardless of what we accomplish and accumulate in life, we are unable to take it with us.

In the fast paced, consumer driven, social media shared world that we live in today, success and happiness are often defined by the status of what we achieve, and the value of the things that we own.

Everywhere we look, we are inundated with the same message: the measure of our self-worth is directly equal to the measure of our material wealth.

Whether it’s the status car, the trendiest clothes, the luxury home or the CEO title that comes with the envied corner office with a view, these and the many other status symbols of wealth and success seem to forever define our value in our culture today, immortalized by the cinematic perfection of super heroes and super stars, and broadcasted through the perfectly curated lives that bombard us daily by “friends” on social media.

Fueled by equal parts aspiration and expectation, in an entirely odd and unusual way, envy has become the 21st Century’s most enduring economic driver, feeding our most persistent social cravings and endless material consumerism.

In our effort to keep up with all that is expected of us — and expected of ourselves — many of us find ourselves in perpetual motion, filling our days with the hyper-active, turbo-charged, “crazy busy” schedules that keep us struggling to eat healthy, find and maintain balance between our work, busy careers, and all that’s happening in our personal lives. And despite our success, when we achieve it, it seems that quality personal time for ourselves and for nurturing our relationships has become increasingly more elusive.

Psychologists see a pattern in this success driven culture of busyness and the associated “connection disconnection” of an increasingly digitally remote world, and it’s triggering what they say is rapidly becoming a dire epidemic of loneliness. In the elderly, this epidemic of loneliness is known as the “hidden killer.”

With our daily use of email, texting, smart phones, professional and social media, we live in an age of instant global connectivity. We are more connected to one another today than ever before in human history, yet somehow, we’re actually increasingly feeling more alone.

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No longer considered a marginalized issue suffered by only the elderly, outcasts or those on the social fringe, the current wave of loneliness sweeping the nation is hitting much closer to home than you might think. And as shocking as it may seem, new research shows that loneliness may now be the next biggest public health crises to face Americans since the rise of obesity and substance abuse.

In fact, loneliness and its associated depression has become downright rampant, even amongst some of the most successful, with studies showing that business executives and CEOs may actually suffer at more than double the rate of the general public as a whole, which is already an astonishing twenty percent.

What’s more, this ever-growing loneliness among the hyper successful is not just a result of the social and professional isolation of living in a more global and digitized world, but rather it’s a “lonely at the top” malaise that’s spreading largely due to the sheer emotional exhaustion of business and workplace burnout.

Science is now sounding the alarm that there’s a significant correlation between feeling lonely and work exhaustion — and the more exhausted people are, the lonelier they feel. This, of course, is made worse by the ever-growing trend for a large segment of professionals who now work mobile and remotely.

Throughout history, human beings have inherently been social creatures. For millions of years we’ve genetically evolved to survive and thrive through the “togetherness” of social groups and gatherings. Today, modern communication and technology has forever changed the landscape of our human interaction, and as such, we often decline without this type of meaningful personal contact. Today’s highly individualistic, digitally remote, and material driven culture is now challenging all of this, as we turn to science to unlock the mysteries of human connection and wellness in a digitally connected world.

Connection of Disconnection

In a world where some of our most personal moments are “Shared” online with “Friends”, business meetings are replaced with digital “Hangouts”, and the most important breaking news is “Tweeted” online in a mere 140 characters or less, today we often seem much more captivated by flashing notifications on our mobile phones than what we’re actually experiencing outside of our tiny 5'.7" screens.

Mobile technologies ushered in by Internet icons like Google, who have literally defined what it means to have “the world’s information at your fingertips”, have no doubt brought us one step closer to truly living in a “Global Village”. However, no matter how small the world may seem to be getting, it now also feels like it’s often becoming a much less personable place to live in as well.

This also means understanding just how much the “connection disconnection” of loneliness negatively impacts our health, and to begin attending to signs and symptoms of loneliness with preventative measures, the very same way we would do with diet, exercise, and adequate sleep.

Dr. John Cacioppo, PhD, is a Professor of Neuroscience and director of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago, and a leading researcher on the effects on loneliness and human health. According to Dr. Cacioppo, the physical effects of loneliness and social isolation are as real as any other physical detriment to the body — such as thirst, hunger, or pain. “For a social species, to be on the edge of the social perimeter is to be in a dangerous position,” says Dr. Cacioppo, who is the co-author of the best-selling book “Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection”, hailed by critics to be one of the most important books about the human condition to appear in a decade.

Photo © Srdjan Randjelovic /Shutterstock

Loneliness changes our thoughts, which changes the chemistry of our brains, says Dr. Cacioppo. “The brain goes into a self-preservation state that brings with it a lot of unwanted side effects.” This includes increased levels of cortisol, the stress hormone that can predict heart death due to its highly negative effects on the body. This increase in cortisol triggers a host of negative physical effects — including a persistent disruption in our natural patterns of sleep, according to Dr. Cacioppo. “As a result of increased cortisol, sleep is more likely to be interrupted by micro-awakenings,” reducing our ability to get enough quality sleep, that in time begins to erode our overall greater health and well-being.

One of the most important discoveries of Dr. Cacioppo’s research, is the Epigenetic impacts that loneliness has on our genes. In his recent studies, tests reveal how the emotional and physical impacts of loneliness actually trigger cellular changes that alter the gene expression in our bodies, or “what genes are turned on and off in ways that help prepare the body for assaults, but that also increases the stress and aging on the body as well.” This Epigenetic effect provides important clues in improving our understanding of the physical effects of loneliness, and in an increasingly remote and digitally connected world, minding our digital footprint and ensuring that we cultivate real and meaningful relationships with others may hold the key to keeping us healthy and keeping the onset of loneliness at bay.

Social Media’s Alone Together

Worldwide, there are over 2.01 billion active monthly users of social media, and of the 300 million of us in the United States, sometimes it feels like we’ve all just become new “Friends” on Facebook.

With so many of us being “Friends” and so well connected, you’d think that our social calendars would be totally full.

But the sad truth is that for all of the social media friends that we may have out in cyberspace, studies show that social media usage is actually making us less socially active in the real world, and Americans in particular are finding themselves lonelier than ever.

According to a recent study by sociologists at Duke University and the University of Arizona, published by American Sociological Review, American’s circle of close friends and confidants has shrunk dramatically over the past two decades, and the number who say they have no one outside of their immediate family to discuss important matters with has more than doubled, reaching a shocking 53.4% — up 17% since the dawn of the Internet and social media.

What’s more, nearly a quarter of those surveyed say they have no close friends or confidantes at all — a 14% percent increase since we all became so digitally connected.

Looking at the stats, we should ask ourselves, are digital communication technologies and social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter helping us or actually hurting us?

Many experts seem to feel the latter, and see a clear pattern with social media use and the decline in social intimacy, contributing greatly to today’s social and personal breakdown.

Photo © antoniodiaz /Shutterstock

In her recent book “Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other”, MIT Professor Dr. Sherry Tuckle, PhD argues the case that this just may be so.

Dr. Turkle puts forth a host of pretty convincing signs that technology is threatening to dominate our lives and make us less and less social as humans. In Alone Together, she warns us that in only just a few short years, technology has now become the architect of our intimacies. “Online, we fall prey to the illusion of companionship, gathering thousands of Twitter and Facebook friends, and confusing tweets and wall posts with authentic communication.” But this relentless online digital connection is not at all real social intimacy, and leads us to a deep feeling of solitude.

Compounding matters is the added burden of increasingly busy schedules. People are now working very long hours — far more than in any recent history — and many feel that the only way that they can make social contact is online via social media or even online dating apps — which they often feel is faster and cheaper than actually going out for an intimate connection in person. Many even prefer the limited effort necessary to maintain digital friendships, verses live interpersonal relationships, which allows them to feel connected — but actually still remain somewhat disconnected.

Photo © Stokkete /Shutterstock

This is perhaps ever more apparent with a new generation of Americans who have grown up with smartphones and social media, and as a result, may have even lost some fundamental social skills due to excessive online and social media use.

Dr. Brian Primack, PhD is the director of the Center for Research on Media, Technology and Health at the University of Pittsburgh, and co-author of a study published by the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, which shows that those who spend the most time digitally connecting on social media — more than two hours a day — had more than twice the odds of feeling socially isolated and lonely, compared to those who spend only a half hour per day. While real life face-to-face social connectedness seems to be strongly associated with feelings of well-being, the study shows that this naturally expected outcome seems to change when our interactions happen virtually. These results seemed very much to be counterintuitive — yet somehow this negative outcome is entirely consistent and true.

Dr. Primack’s earlier research on the connection of social media use and depression in young adults seemed to confirm what many already suspected, that our self-esteem can easily take a nosedive each time we log in to a social media network. There is a natural tendency to compare our lives to those we see online, and when we see others seemingly living the life of our dreams, it’s human nature not to feel just a little bit envious. However, if left unchecked, that envy can quickly turn into low self-esteem — and that can quickly spiral into depression. And like a vicious cycle, the more depressed and the lower our self-esteem, the lonelier we feel.

Meanwhile, a recent study found that those who gave up Facebook for even just a week felt much happier, less lonely and less depressed at the end of the study then other participants who continued using it.

The message is clear, that it’s important to use social media in positive ways. It’s a strong reminder of the importance of establishing real and meaningful interpersonal friendships, versus isolating ourselves in the digital social world. Real life interactions help us to build lasting relationships that fulfill our innate human need to form bonds and feel connected.

The solution, experts say, is that we have to begin to recognize the inherent pitfalls of social media and begin to utilize our online time in more positive ways that enhance our relationships — not detract from them. Social media can actually be a positive step toward building a “Global Village”, if we make it so.

It all depends on how we choose to interact online. It’s important to remember this, in our ever-busy quest for success in our increasingly digitally connected lives.

Connect With Your Friends The Old Fashioned Way — Device Free.

I have established really strong boundaries to have device free outings on date nights, also with my friends or if I am having a business meeting. Let me clarify, a device can be present however it must be switched off completely and preferably out of sight.

I have one friend who I visit sometimes. She is unable or unwilling to hear the boundaries that I would like to have regarding our device free get togethers. She is really smart and quite amazing, we will talk for about 10 minutes and we will be having a delightful deep meaningful conversation, and then like a merciless predator she preys on her phone like she going in for the kill and starts in on her social media. She is an addict. I overtly exit “stage left.” She is disappointed that I leave. This is the only way I can train her with regards to having a device free get together. The lengths of conversation have actually gotten longer since I have been doing that. When we go out for dinner she has to leave her phone at her home otherwise she is unable to help herself to her phone. The question I ask her is, “Dinner with Marina or will it be Dinner with your Phone?” She does opt for Dinner with Marina.

Self Love is one of the most important loves of all. When we learn to love ourselves completely, then we can truly love others

Connect with Your Friends & Loved Ones & Disconnect from Loneliness

01. Choose Self Love & Practice Self Love With Regards To How You Want It To Show Up In Your Life.

02. Choose To Be Worthy & Deserving Of Being Loved By Others On Your Own Terms.

03. Choose To Love People Unconditionally With Strong Boundaries.

04. Choose To Love People Unconditionally Without Being Taken Advantage Of.

05. Choose To Celebrate Who You Are.

06. Choose To See Your Value & How Valuable You Are To Yourself & Others.

07. Choose To Have Self Worth & Self Esteem & Positive Self Deserving In All Areas of Your Life.

08. Choose To Be Empathic With Your Friends With Strong Boundaries.

09. Choose To Be A Great Listener.

10. Choose To Be Worthy & Deserving To Be Listened To & Be Heard.

11. Choose To Be A Good Friend Without Being Taken Advantage Of.

12. Choose To Be Respectful, Present and Mindful With Your Friends.

13. Choose To Speak Your Truth With Emotional Intelligence.

14. Choose To Have Confidence In All Areas of Your Life.

15. Choose To Authentically Live Your Own Personal Truth In All Areas of Your Life.

Change Your DNA, Instantly Change Your Life™

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Part of the article originally published at 9/1/17.

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