Being social used to mean being just that. Now it means almost the opposite – being glued to a device and barely making meaningful contact with other human beings in the real world.
Now, I’m not in any way against social media (that would be ironic for a post shared through social channels), but has our obsession been at the expense of real-life interaction, instead of in addition to it? Research has shown that virtual interactions don’t produce the same responses in the brain as interactions face-to-face. Even simple things like making eye contact with someone can increase dopamine and oxytocin, and decrease cortisol, reducing stress, increasing trust and improving mood.
And it’s much more powerful than that – Professor Julianne Holt-Lunstad studied the impact of different lifestyle factors on how long we will live. She discovered that some of the physical factors we focus so much on, like being overweight or exercising regularly, only had a moderate impact on life expectancy, and the biggest predictors by far were whether or not people have close relationships and regular social interaction. Research by Prof Clive Ballard also showed that dementia patients spending just 10 minutes a day having a one-on-one social interaction can improve their quality of life, agitation levels and neuropsychiatric complications. That’s the kind of response we might only expect to achieve with hard drugs, not a simple chat.
Physical factors are obviously important, but the focus on physical vs psychological factors is clearly out of kilter. We could all improve our health and wellbeing, and expect to live longer as a result, if we preserve time in our busy lives for talking to people. For most of us that’s pretty easy, but not for everyone. In her recent TED talk, psychologist Susan Pinker stated that “social isolation is the public health risk of our time”.
Channel 4’s Old People’s Home for 4 Year Oldsrecently highlighted a beautiful example of how human interaction can improve our wellbeing. A group of 4-year-olds spent six weeks at an old people’s home, and in that time the senior volunteers showed dramatic improvements in their mental and physical health scores. People who felt they could only walk with a zimmer frame were seen chasing the little nippers around playfully, totally forgetting their physical inabilities. More anecdotally, the older participants said they felt more alive and that being with the children had been like having a shot of adrenalin. There it is again – human interaction having the impact we might only expect from a drug.
So, shouldn’t we be doing much more to recognise the power of human interaction in improving our mental and physical health? In the communications industry, everything we do is about having conversations with people, but it feels like we’re often so focused on how to talk to people, that we forget the importance of actually talking to people.
We need to make it happen. So go and find someone to have a chat with, and maybe you’ll both feel better for it.