Basic Understanding of Social Connection

Why Social Connection?

Relationships matter.  This is clear for many of us from personal experience, and underscored by the ubiquity of relationships as a major theme across literature, the arts, and spiritual practices. The value of close relationships is substantiated by science as well. In terms of risks associated with lack of close relationships, chronic loneliness increases risk for cardiovascular problems, causes chronic activation of the body’s threat-response system, impairs immune functioning, causes depression and other mental health problems, impairs executive functioning and accelerates cognitive decline in the elderly (Hawkley & Cacioppo, 2010). Overall, poor social relationships produce downstream effects on mortality that are equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes daily (Holt-Lunstad & Smith, 2012) and double the influence of obesity (Holt-Lunstad, Smith, & Layton, 2010).

On the other hand, stated in terms of protective factors associated with good relationships, higher quality marriages enhance personal well-being (Proulx, Helms, & Bueler, 2007) and physical health (Robles, Slatcher, Trombello, & McGinn, 2014) for both men and women. British behavioral economists quantified adding a friend to day-to-day life as worth up to £85,000 (approximately $120,000) a year in terms of life satisfaction for the loneliest 1% of adults, and up to £15,500 (approximately $22,000) for the average adult (Powdthavee, 2008). Relationships matter across multiple social domains, including primary attachments, mating, friendships, and social groups, and the strength and specificity of these social domains in humans is likely a function of natural selection (Bugental, 2000). In other words, we are built by nature to require close, functional relationships across a range of interpersonal contexts. These relationships must thrive to maximize our well-being, health, and survival (Cohen, 2004; House, Landis, & Umberson, 1988; Ryff & Singer, 2000).  

Much recent interest across several nations has centered on the public health significance of loneliness as a particular manifestation of problems with social connections and relationships, including the development of a range of interventions including public-health campaigns and individual, group, and wider community interventions (Cacioppo, Grippo, London, Goossens, & Cacioppo, 2015). Masi, Chen, Hawkley & Cacioppo (2011) conducted a meta-analysis of loneliness-reduction interventions and documented a range of intervention effect sizes across different types of interventions, with the largest effects found for cognitive-behavioral interventions. Caccioppo et al. (2015), summarizing the potentially effective elements of this particular subset of interventions, emphasized multiple specific constructs, including improving awareness skills (such as perspective taking, empathy, identifying automatic negative thoughts, and mindfulness), improving awareness of and expression of feelings, and improving expression of positive events to facilitate capitalization processes.