There are very few words that elicit more misery than loneliness. While there are certainly concerning, ‘louder’ behaviors that are often seen as more problematic than a person’s experience of feeling disconnected and unattached to others, it is one of the leading predictors of suicide. A recent study found that loneliness was a predictive factor for suicide when identified in 12-13 year olds, showing a 3 fold increase by the time those same children emerged into young adulthood. Over the last 10 years, research has provided us with unending amounts of research on the emotional, mental and physical resilience factors that connectedness brings us as well as the detrimental effects of experiencing loneliness. Dr. Emma Seppala’s Tedx Talk on The Power and Science of Social Connection gives us a great overview of the importance of interpersonal relationships and the corresponding infographic (below with credits to Dr. Seppala’s fantastic articles) demonstrates the importance of connectedness and the risk factors that loneliness brings.
While research has demonstrated the negative emotional and physical impact that loneliness can bring, there is an equal body of evidence that experiencing connectedness provides happiness, life satisfaction and resilience. A longitudinal Harvard-based research study following more than 700 people for more than 75 years had one significant finding: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. In spite of emerging ways to approximate connectedness through social media and digital devices, it turns out that there are major differences between ‘real’ human connectedness and social-media driven relationships. This might best be explained by the fact that humans are wired for seeking connectedness and thrive when involved in social relationships that are genuine, interactive and reciprocal. It also turns out that this is equally important throughout our lifespan, from younger children’s ability to feel like they are in similarly-aged friendships to seniors looking to remain connected to friends and family (where the health aspects of loneliness are most dangerous and imminent). In short, while we readily accept evidence of the parent bonding to healthy children, it should not be surprising that having the sense of belonging and attachment is equally important across the human lifespan.
So how do we, as parents, help support connectedness and happiness for our children (and others in our life)? Altruism, compassion and setting aside time and prioritizing relationships are great starts. People that engage in volunteer work that benefits others and prioritizes social capitalism (a socially minded form of capitalism, where the goal is making social improvements, rather than focusing on accumulating of capital in the classic capitalist sense….. a utilitarian form of capitalism with a social purpose) are more resilient to daily stress and research demonstrates that the impact can actually last for the day of volunteering and the day after! This can also parlay into benefits for families and the importance of engaging in time spent together. Our capacity to provide opportunities to bring families together is a hallmark for feeling connected and from simple things like family dinners to more complex events like vacations or family outings provide lasting memories for kids and parents alike. And it turns out that the length, expense and destination actually do not impact the memory or feeling of family connectedness; rather, the time and togetherness are much more predictive of joy and lasting memories of feeling close.