Feeling lonely? You’re not alone. Discover the link between connectedness and wellbeing and how to bring it into your life
Connection is one of those commonly used words you hear everywhere: in the media, on Facebook, from politicians and scientists. Like “moving forward” from politicians, I hear “connected” all the time, and not just in the context of being connected through social media or smartphone messaging. “Let’s connect some time” or “I don’t feel connected to anyone” or “I feel deeply connected to this place; I feel at home here.”
Experiencing connectedness is essential for realising our potential and life satisfaction, yet it’s importance and the health consequences of disconnection are rarely discussed. Here, I’ll explore the link between connectedness and wellbeing and offer some simple actions to bring it into your life.
There’s connecting and then there’s connectedness
The word “connect” has a spectrum of meanings related to joining together, the original meaning of the Latin connectere. There are at least four verbal constructs to which connect refers:
- To join
- To establish communication (“I can’t connect with Linda on Skype”)
- To associate with (“I connect the sound of seagulls with my beach holidays”)
- To establish rapport with (“I feel connected to Gus despite just having met him”)
All these meanings are about “joining together”, yet connectedness is more than this. Rather, connectedness is about being aligned in some meaningful way to another being, place or spirit. It can, at its most positive, manifest as an experience of common union, a “communion” with another, a sense of unity or oneness with a person, nature or spirit/All That Is.
The wider you cast the net of connection, the deeper your sense of inclusiveness and completeness.
Experiencing such a profound connectedness expands your own state of consciousness to bridge the illusion of separation. The wider you cast the net of connection, the deeper your sense of inclusiveness and completeness. But, from a wellness perspective, what are the health impacts when we experience an inadequate level of connectedness?
Why disconnection affects us
The need to belong is one of the most fundamental human needs, so we are naturally drawn to seek out contact and relationships with others. We overwhelmingly need to have human contact, especially close one-to-one relationships and social groups. Beyond human contact, however, is a more intrinsic need: to feel a connectedness that nourishes and sustains us beyond our basic needs for survival and social integration.
What happens, though, when you experience consistently alienating social situations and/or relationships? Where there is little meaningful engagement with people or life in general? Where the world seems to be going insane and you feel hurt and alienated and want to retreat in response? This is the situation many of us have faced or may face at some point in our lives.
Whether it’s experienced as ostracism and social isolation, chronic loneliness, a sense of alienation or inadequate life purpose and meaning, there are significant health implications for feeling chronically disconnected. Disconnection creates an inner void and suffering that hollows us out and leaves us feeling agitated, anxious and confused about how to find meaningful connections.
The price of disconnection
As you can imagine, a chronic sense of disconnection can have mental health implications such as reduced vitality, self-worth and self-esteem, and various levels and forms of anxiety disorder (over 2 million Australians each year) and depression (over 1 million).
Research indicates that chronic loneliness has a significant negative health impact. For example, one extensive review of the literature published in PLOS Medicine, a peer-reviewed medical journal, in 2010 found that, of 308,000 people followed over seven years, those with poor or insufficient social relationships had 50 per cent higher mortality than those who did have adequate relationships. This is a death rate comparable to that from smoking and a much higher mortality risk than from obesity, high cholesterol levels and being sedentary.
This survey was validated by another meta-analysis in 2015 published in Perspectives on Psychological Science, which looked at 3.4 million people in 70 studies and found that socially isolated people had a 30 per cent higher risk of dying in seven years.
We more readily admit to being overweight or drinking too much than to feeling disconnected.
Surveys across Western nations indicate that chronic loneliness is becoming increasingly common despite the hyper-connectivity of our globalised world. In the US, some surveys put loneliness as being experienced by up to 40 per cent of the population. While this may not be the chronic form, this and other types of disconnect place stress on the body and mind. Research has shown that chronic loneliness is a significant factor in inflammation throughout the body. Given that eight of the top 10 high-fatality diseases are closely associated with inflammation, we need to recognise the health effects of disconnection.
The mental stress of it affects us at various levels. At the genetic level, studies have shown that chronic loneliness up-regulates genes in blood leukocyte cells associated with inflammation and down-regulates genes associated with antiviral actions. At the hormonal level, the stress of chronic loneliness triggers overproduction of various stress-related hormones such as cortisol which, through various pathways, affect immune function. These impacts lead to systemic inflammation undermining our immune systems and leading to increased risks of illness and death.
It’s time to reconnect
We live in a culture of “she’ll be right, mate”, a culture that obsesses over the superficial, the trivial and the façade of always coping, of fitting into the social norm of success and conformity. We more readily admit to being overweight or drinking too much than to feeling disconnected. We obsess over diets and looking good, on strategies to deal with obesity and smoking and health in general. Our bookstores are filled with self-help books dealing with these issues.
With mental health issues on the rise, various public programs have developed, such as the R U OK? campaign and mental health weeks, as well as mental health programs within business, educational institutions and local communities. There’s still a long way to go to deal with mental health issues, though, given the shift required in social and cultural values and attitudes.
Research has shown that chronic loneliness is a significant factor in inflammation throughout the body.
So what can you do to help yourself, or your loved ones who may be feeling isolated, lonely and disconnected, to experience the nourishment of rich connectedness? While you can’t just magic up rich social interactions and meaningful relationships, you can find ways to create more connectedness in your life to keep yourself from going under.
Research over the past few years into the genetic effects of chronic loneliness offers some clues on how to approach this experience of disconnection, and perhaps all forms of it.
One research study, for example, in 2016 by Professor Steve Cole of University of California’s medical school looked at the role of happiness, life meaning and purpose in helping with stress and loneliness in terms of gene expression. It had long been known that chronic loneliness had negative effects on genetic expression for inflammation and immune function and it was assumed that activities creating more happiness would be reduce these effects. But the study found it didn’t and that pursuing eudemonic wellbeing, that is having a sense of life purpose and meaning and being involved in a project of significance beyond an individual’s immediate self-gratification, had beneficial effects on genetic health.
As Cole said in The Sydney Morning Herald in December 2016, “What we found was that if people had lonely, challenging life circumstances, so long as they had some significant sense of meaning and purpose in what they were doing, they actually looked pretty good. The good stuff seems, if anything, to be more powerful [than negative life situations].”
What this study and others point to is the critical role of feeling connected to something larger than the individual, something more nourishing than self-gratification. Research has consistently found, in line with ancient philosophies and spiritual traditions, that having a deeply meaningful and connected life plays a significant role in wellbeing.
Part of the solution for many people is experiencing a deeper connectedness with nature; a form of connectedness that research and our own experience shows has a range of significant mental and physiological benefits. Today, we spend up to 95 per cent of our lives indoors or in built-up settings that cannot help but contribute to our detachment from nature. Being connected with nature doesn’t just help to increase mental resilience and wellbeing but also helps in being part of something greater than our mortal lives.
How to deepen your connection with nature
Religions and spiritual practices recognise the transformative power of natural places. Accessing this power is a strong way to evoke an experience of spirit/divine, to shift perspective on the nature of reality and identity and discover or consolidate life meaning and purpose. These experiences can have a significant benefit on mental and physical wellbeing.
So how can you transform your next contact with nature into a more profound experience of connectedness? Here are several activities you can try when you go for your next quiet walk alone in a natural setting.
Even if you walk regularly, mindful walking is a must-try. Mindfulness is a neutrally observant state of awareness in which you are conscious of your surrounds and yourself (thoughts, feelings, sensations, actions, responses) from a caring, nonjudgmental moment-to-moment perspective. Mindfulness promotes connectedness through increased awareness of the world within and around by putting to one side your mental chatter and habitual reactions and behaviours. By simply observing the coming and going of experiences, it’s possible to understand the transitory nature of living and not engage in reacting. This is called the observer’s stance of mindfulness. It requires regular practice, like all new skills; small steps to build small gains.
Before you begin to walk, try being mindful on a deep diaphragmatic breathing pattern for 3–5 minutes and then start walking. Once you master the ability to remain mindful of breathing, then become mindful of walking, then your mindscape. If you make this a regular ritual, you will become aware of another perspective towards experience, one in which you are the observer within rather than just the body walking through nature. It takes practice, so be patient!
Use your senses more judiciously or focus in a way that creates a more deliberate, refined and attentive perceptual awareness of your surrounds. We all tend to get mentally distracted and seduced by beautiful scenes, get lost in visually exploring everything at once, habitually or mindlessly take it all in. We tend to seek sensorial stimulation as soon as we can in a new situation and that tends to draw attention to the outer world, and there our attention remains. Our consciousness remains in I-Other mode, objectifying and distancing, an unseen veil that filters our perception of reality.
Instead of a continual searching gaze, try to reduce the over-stimulation of the senses while walking. Early on, try reducing your sensorial input, especially your vision, by seeing with eyelids half closed on the immediate path and surrounds. After a while, you can begin to mindfully focus on specific things with fascination, such as a tree, a leaf, a rock, a bird. As you watch or listen, become aware of observing your awareness as it perceives, rather than being consumed by the object. The reactivating of the senses creates a bridge over the ego-self to deeper aspects of your being.
Extending unconditional love and kindness to another is bonding and healing. It helps to create the openness to experience that facilitates the releasing of emotional and cognitive baggage that weighs us down. A deeply selfless love is the energy of being that frees us to be who we really are and trust in the intelligence and divine purpose infused in all beings and realities. An experience of love in its various manifestations can arise naturally in response to a peaceful or sacred place, to a beautiful scene.
There are various ways to evoke this feeling. You can at different times on your mindful walk allow a sense of deep appreciation and positivity for anything to arise. Send loving thoughts towards this subject and feel the closeness grow. Another way is to foster a sense of intimacy with some aspect of nature through touch, such as hugging a tree. A deepening sense of intimacy will increase your sense of relationship and care, which can elicit feelings of appreciation and love. Love connects, and deeply connecting creates a sense of loving.
The ultimate approach to wellbeing
It’s a sad irony that there’s a pandemic of disconnection in a world of near-instant connectivity; tragic that loneliness, a form of disconnect, is so prevalent and as harmful as smoking and more deadly than obesity, yet discussions and treatments for it are, in effect, excluded from public discussion. It’s time we all asked ourselves and those we know, “Are you OK?” It’s hard to fess up to being lonely or feeling disconnected or lost, but we need to acknowledge these feelings and find our own way to deal with them and connect.
Research has consistently found, in line with ancient philosophies and spiritual traditions, that having a deeply meaningful and connected life plays a significant role in wellbeing.
Being mindful, attentive and loving are steps in the journey of connection and healing that prepares you for whatever the universe brings your way. The deeper the experience of connection, the more profound is the experience of meaning and wellbeing. While it’s important to enrich our social connections, if and where possible, it’s also vital to foster other ways that encourage the experience of connectedness. Connecting deeply with other-than-human nature provides the easiest, healthiest way for us to live more inclusive, healthier and more meaningful lives.