Did you know that feeling isolated is worse for your health than smoking cigarettes? I remember when I first read the study years ago as I was doing research for The Sharp Solution. I immediately recognized the need to add social connections to my list of fundamental brain boosting strategies, not just in the book but also in my own life. I had been doing a pretty good job of staying on top of my nutrition, fitness, sleep and relaxation practices…or at least I knew what I should be doing if I wasn’t quite there yet. But I had never considered how loneliness could affect the brain and body.
It turns out that perceiving a lack of social support is one of the primary triggers for our built in stress response. Think about it: if something goes wrong and we’re all alone that’s a serious problem. Although it might not be top of mind, our primitive brain recognizes the need for community and support much more than our analytical brain wants to give credit.
Knowing this doesn’t make it easier though. In fact, I often feel like ignorance would be bliss because it would allow me to just cruise through the day without feeling such emptiness when it comes to my lack of meaningful connection. It’s not that I’m actually alone. I spend the majority of time surrounded by people on planes, in cars, at hotels and conferences. But I’ve learned that being alone and feeling lonely are two very different things. I’ve been speaking to thousands of people and felt totally alone, and at the same time I’ve been alone and felt completely connected to the world around me.
I guess what I’m saying is there are two ways we can work on deepening our sense of connection. First, by making social support a priority. Not easy for a perfectionistic introvert to do, considering the fact that the worse I feel the less I want to be around people, even though this is typically when I need support the most. Second, by working on ways to feel more connected to the world around us as a whole. For me this comes through spiritual practices such as loving kindness meditation and prayer.
In a world that is so overly connected with technology, it’s easy to feel busy and alone. Our current work environment also enables us to work more and more from home or on the road, which is great for providing flexibility but also challenging in how isolating it can become. So as I think about ways to build a better brain through personal connection, I’m committed to reaching out more often to those in my “tribe”, being more careful about spending excess time with “energy vampires”, and continuing my spiritual practices each morning that help shift my brain into a more open state of love, rather than fear. I’m also going to re-read one of my favorite books, Love 2.0 by Dr. Barbara Fredrickson, which talks about how we can more regularly experience loving moments with the people around us.