A national 2017 survey by R U OK? indicates Aussies spend an average of 46 hours of their weekly downtime looking at TVs and digital devices, but just six hours engaging with family and friends. Integrative psychologist Leanne Hall says it isn’t technology that’s the problem, it’s the way we use it. “I think digital communication has loads of benefits by enhancing relationships and helping people stay connected,” she says. “The problem is when it’s used to substitute or avoid face-to-face interactions.”
In a study comparing the impact of both online and face-to-face friendships on perceived health, researchers noted that one reason internet usage may be associated with high levels of loneliness is because it steals time away from face-to-face interactions.
Loneliness might sound like more of an individual problem than a community-wide issue, but there can be widescale impacts – so much so that the Australian Coalition to End Loneliness (ACEL) refers to social isolation as an ‘emerging public health issue’. Case in point: social isolation is one of the risk factors for heart attack, a serious health event which, on average, claims the lives of around 22 Aussies a day.
So what is loneliness, exactly? According to the ACEL, it’s something that occurs when ‘ our relationships are felt to be inadequate. It can occur even if we are surrounded by people, as well as when we are socially isolated’.
Research has found that loneliness may trigger the body’s stress response and have a related impact on the immune system. This might explain why chronic feelings of loneliness have been linked to things like sleep problems, and a range of poor health outcomes. Studies suggest people who enjoy strong relationships, on the other hand, may have a 50 percent increased likelihood of living a longer life compared to those with weaker relationships.
The connections in your life might include close friends, family, a romantic partner, professional networks and online contacts. In terms of platonic connections, friendships can help boost your happiness, lower stress, improve your self-confidence and reduce your risk of depression. Strong friendships may also help reduce your risk of other health issues, such as high blood pressure. While relationships within professional networks generally aren’t as close as friendships, these types of connections can help you feel like you’re part of a larger community and expand your horizons.
When it comes to romantic relationships, research suggests men may benefit more in terms of physical health than women, while women may get more of a mental health benefit– unless the relationship isn’t a stable, healthy one. Researchers report that single people have better mental health than people in strained romantic relationships.
And how you connect is as important as why you connect. According to two studies of residents in Portugal, face-to-face friendships were found to generally have a positive effect on individuals’ perceived health levels, while online contacts offered a more limited boost to wellbeing, and may even have a detrimental effect. That said, another study showed online interactions may help boost self-esteem and lower depressive symptoms in more introverted young adults.
As well as devoting time to face-to-face interactions, keeping your connections healthy comes down to good listening, says Hall.
“Take an interest in others, and ask questions about the other person,” she says. “Don’t just bring every conversation back to you and your experiences, which is so common! Initiate face to face interactions based on what you know interests the other person, not just what you like.”
It’s also helpful to avoid interrupting or rushing conversations. Showing you’ve listened by repeating back what you’ve heard in your own words can help them feel they have been heard.
In the workplace, asking about colleagues’ interests outside of work, and calling or talking to them rather than depending on email, can help foster valuable connections.
In your closest relationships, Hall advocates honesty rather than putting on a front.
“Learn how to be vulnerable with the people you love and care about. When we are vulnerable we allow the other person to feel needed and valued,” she says.
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