Isolation is a powerful stressor-in people, animals, and probably all the way to single cells. It is associated with higher anxiety, lower mood and lower cognition, and myriad health problems. Isolation leads to uncertainty about safety, ability to thrive and ability to influence events. It is becoming more prevalent in modern societies, where social, familial and intergenerational bonds are frayed by geographic relocations/dislocations. On the dark side, social isolation has also been used as a way of punishing and/or coercing individuals.
Real or perceived social connections, from online connections such as Facebook to the local pub, exert a powerful soothing effect, and people are willing to pay for that with their attention, time and money, despite less than nourishing offerings (flimsy online friends, grubby pub fare).
As in the popular old TV series “Friends”, “Seinfeld” and “Cheers”, people go to these places (coffeehouses, corner deli, bars) as much for the actual fare served as for the fact that there (hopefully) “everybody knows your name, and they’re always glad you came”.
More positively, the health promoting effects of church attendance have been well documented. Proactive ways of social integration- from reconnecting with families, friends to joining social groups with a cause in a contributory fashion, will improve individual health and the health of society as a whole. Fads and companies come and go, but the importance of social connections is a perennial lesson that bears learning and relearning.
Alexander B. Niculescu, III, MD, PhD