Thrive Global: What role does technology play in social isolation? Has it made us more or less socially isolated?
Julianne Holt-Lunstad: That’s still an open question, but I can tell you what some data points are. Most of the studies that I looked at in my research on social relationships follow people over decades, starting before the use of technology. Over time, the majority of the population began to use technology as their primary means of interacting socially.
We don’t have the evidence yet to know what kind of effect this is having, but what we can say is that in this same time-frame, we have seen demographic changes that suggest that people are becoming more isolated. More people are living alone, fewer people are married, and fewer people are having children. So we have an aging population with fewer familial resources. There is also evidence that the size of social networks for American adults has decreased by about a third. More people are describing themselves as lonely.
TG: So when people think that social media has tripled the size of their social networks, that’s actually not the case.
JH: The number of people that we interact with face-to-face may be dramatically different from the number of people that we’re Facebook friends with. How many of your Facebook friends might you get together with or go have dinner with or could call when you need help? I’m guessing it’s not all of them.
TG: Are some social relationships more important than others, from a health perspective? How do different connections affect us?
JH: There is data to suggest that different kinds of relationships are important for health, but we don’t have strong evidence that say certain relationships are more important than others. We do know that marital status is associated with significant impacts on health, but the quality of the marriage is important, of course. People who are married live longer than those who are single, but those in distressed marriages actually have higher health risks than those who are single.
The diversity of social networks may be important for health. If you think about the different roles that we have in different kinds of relationships, they all serve different purposes that may provide unique pathways to health benefits.
TG: So when it comes down to human connection, is it about quality or quantity, or both with the diversity of relationship types?
JH: The short answer is they’re all important, but it’s complex. Most studies have looked at quality and quantity of relationships separately, finding each to be important. But what research hasn’t explored as much is their relative importance.
TG: One of the things that we think a lot about here at TG is the idea of microsteps, small science-based ways to improve your life, which ultimately lead to bigger change. So what microsteps would you recommend to help people broaden or build their social connections?
JH: That’s a hard question because as a scientist I don’t want to provide recommendations until they’ve been tested, but my general recommendation is to start taking social relationships seriously, for the sake of your health. We now have strong evidence that our social connections have a significant impact on our health and longevity, comparable to the effects of things that we take quite seriously, like obesity. So it’s time to start paying attention to our social relationships the same way we pay attention to our diet and exercise.
TG: For people who are more introverted and less inclined to put themselves out there, whether it’s at work or outside of the workplace, what advice would you give them them to find and build relationships?
JH: There are still ways to nurture relationships within the smaller social circle that an introvert might have. But I would also challenge them to get out of their comfort zones. For example, I know a lot people can feel uncomfortable at social gatherings, so one strategy might be to find someone else in the room who looks awkward or alone and go talk to that person, or ask the host or hostess if they need help getting drinks. Find a way to ease that uncomfortableness. You can also find others who share similar interests and join some kind of group, or just even informally find others who share your interests and get together in that way.