The Importance of Social Connection

Musicians' Assistance Program

Volume CII, No. 4April, 2002

Jackelyn S. Frost, CSW

Devoting years to developing and maintaining one’s music ability – a calling that often requires long hours of isolated practice – can sometimes undermine a musician’s development of people skills. It’s possible that some people are drawn to pursuing music as a way of avoiding social interaction with others. And given the intense competition and the short-term nature of many gigs, supportive social interaction is often hard to find in the musician’s world.

To maintain health, however, it is tremendously important to establish a balance between the many areas of your life: career, social life, relationships, home environment, nutrition, physical fitness, spirituality, education, finances and creativity. People tend to focus on one or two areas of their lives at the expense of most of the others.

Building and nurturing a sturdy support network can enrich your life in many ways. A high degree of social connection can increase your productivity and lower the risk of depression and illness. The stronger your social network, the easier it is to manage problems when times are difficult. Studies have shown a strong correlation between involvement in social activity and a healthy constitution. There is also a significant trickle-down effect within society: communities with a variety of civic and social groups and a network of informal connections also tend to have lower rates of crime, teenage pregnancy and child abuse.

Unfortunately, such networks tend to be weaker today than they were in earlier periods. In a book entitled “Bowling Alone,” Harvard professor Robert Putnam reported on decades of social surveys which showed that Americans today spend about 35 percent less time visiting friends than they did 30 years ago, and that families have dinner together only two-thirds as often as they did in the 1960s. Group membership, voter participation, team sports, picnics – practically anything that involves togetherness in groups – appears to have declined sharply. Putnam cites several reasons for this trend. One is entertainment through watching television, which he considers “lethal to social connection.”

While many major technological advances of the last century – cars, phones, beepers, cell phones and the internet – have the potential to enhance our ability to connect, in some ways they may actually have the opposite effect. Television, radio, computers and telephones allow us to withdraw from life and be comfortable alone or in the isolated units of our families. They keep us company and fill in empty spaces. Instead of talking to other families, nowadays many of us watch and listen to familiar strangers talking to each other.

As society becomes more privatized, social networks and systems deteriorate. People are becoming more isolated, alienated and lonely – a fragmentation that contributes to health problems and to heart disease, in particular. Studies indicate that lonely and isolated people are at a three to five times greater risk of premature death, compared to those who have a sense of connection and community.

Interacting socially, whether talking or sharing activities, can keep you healthier. It’s particularly important to surround yourself with positive, supportive people. Establishing a lifestyle in which you incorporate a sense of optimism, humor, physical fitness and spirituality will help you in the long run, and the more types of friends you have, the better. All of these elements help to counteract the effects of day-to-day stress.

During times of stress some parts of the brain become more active, resulting in elevated levels of stress hormones. These are necessary to enable the body to cope with the everyday challenges we all face, but when they remain at heightened levels over extended periods of time they can become harmful, affecting blood glucose levels, healing, bone density and the aging process. The immune system may function poorly and neurons in your brain may be affected, compromising mental function.

Laughter has been shown to reduce stress because it causes chemical changes in our body. When we laugh, stress hormones that decrease immune functioning are reduced. Laughter also increases the production of antibodies that have been shown to help fight tumors and viruses.

A UCLA study demonstrated that women are more likely than men to seek social contact and support from others when faced with stressful situations. Researchers suggest that this may be why men are more likely than women to suffer harmful effects from stress.

As Gerald Ellison, Ph.D., Director of Psychoneuroimmunology Services at Cancer Treatment Centers of America in Tulsa, Okla., has observed, “Friends – if supportive and encouraging – can increase our hope when dealing with illness and trauma. And increased hope is associated with higher levels of immune system functioning.”