In 2010, three researchers published a study that sent international media into a frenzy.
Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Timothy B. Smith and J. Bradley Layton had conducted a painstaking analysis of 148 different studies, spanning almost 310,000 participants. Their intention: to understand whether social relationships reduce our risk of premature death.
As the results of their analysis spread around the world, it became clear that the answer was even more clear-cut than anyone could have imagined. The results suggested that people with strong social relationships had a 50% higher likelihood of avoiding premature death than those with weak social relationships.
As if writing the headlines for the international media, the researchers also found that a lack of social connection had the same adverse impact on lifespan as smoking fifteen cigarettes per day. In fact, the risk of weak social connections to lifespan was found to be greater than the risk associated with obesity, lack of exercise and excess alcohol consumption.
These were startling results. And perhaps more remarkably, the researchers found that this effect remained consistent regardless of age, sex, initial health status and cause of death. The inevitable chicken-and-egg question had been partially mitigated.
A follow-up study in 2015 by Holt-Lunstad confirmed the higher risk of premature death in the lonely. Meanwhile, a rush of studies had already reported that loneliness was associated with increased risk of coronary heart disease, stroke, dementia, depression, anxiety, reduced sleep and impaired judgement.1
It is perhaps unsurprising that one of the key characteristics of so-called “Blue Zones” (regions of the world where people live much longer than average) is the level of social and family engagement at all age groups.
Finding the Balance
There are three morbid but pressing punchlines to the growing research findings. The first is that weak social relationships are more likely to kill us faster than strong social relationships. The second is that healthcare systems are treating diseases that are often an indirect consequence of this reality. And the third is that changes in our socioeconomic structures are compounding rates of loneliness and, in turn, the two prior problems.
Thankfully, this blog is not about solving an international health challenge; it’s about optimising our own lives in the light of the evidence.
Not long ago, I wrote a short essay on solitude. In it, I argued that we are losing the ability to be alone with our thoughts: to sit quietly in a room and to listen and accept our internal monologue. Research tells us that harnessing this ability can bring with it a multitude of benefits, from increased creativity to improved mental health.
But I also included an important caveat in this essay: solitude is not the same as loneliness. Solitude is gradual self-improvement; loneliness is insidious self-destruction.
Our experience of loneliness varies from person to person, but if one were to spend all their time pursuing solitude, they can confidently expect to experience loneliness and its unpleasant side effects. After all, relationships are a basic human need.
Of course, there is nothing revolutionary in the idea that we therefore need the right balance between solitude and socialisation. But understanding the effects of loneliness on our health can serve as a welcome reminder. It certainly did for me.
Make no mistake, this balance is important for everybody. But there is a particularly painful irony for those sacrificing social connections under the guise of self-improvement.
The relentless pursuit of gains at the cost of socialisation is not only worthless because it goes unshared with people, but it’s also undermined because it goes uninterrupted by people. The physical and mental cost of weak social relationships can ultimately deny us of the individual goals we prized above everything else. In short, self-improvement at the expense of all socialisation has a better name: self-destruction.
For those who need it, here’s the bottom line: Strong relationships improve everything.
1 The precise causes of our physiological responses to long-term loneliness are wide-ranging, beginning with biological responses ingrained by our evolution. I recommend reading Together by Vivek Murthy, which provides a fascinating introduction to this science.