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Not only is one the loneliest number, but social isolation adversely affects your mental health. In fact, chronic isolation and loneliness could be taking years off your life.

A study found that the health effects of prolonged isolation is equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Just feeling lonely can increase the risk of death 26-45 percent, according to another report.

Social isolation affects everyone, from young adults to adults 50 and older, and higher levels of loneliness also increase the risk of developing social anxiety and depression.

In an age of increased independence, when we can rely on our phones for nearly everything, how do we foster true human connection? From cutting back on social media to acting against type for a minute, here are a few ideas to feel more connected—and consequently, feel less lonely and happier.

 

Curb your social media use

Wait a minute…isn’t social media, you know, social? Aren’t Facebook, Instagram, and the like social networks? While those terms are accurate, the reality is that spending too much time on those platforms isn’t great for your mental well-being. A recent study by the University of Pennsylvania found a causal link between the time spent on social platforms and increased depression and loneliness. Researchers found that when you’re looking at other people’s lives, “it’s easy to conclude that everyone else’s life is cooler or better than yours.”

While giving up social media cold turkey may be impractical, consider limiting your screen time. Limiting your interaction with social media to 30 minutes a day, or a “snack-sized” portion, may lead to significant improvement in well-being, according to the same study. Use the screen time data and alerts available on your phone to better understand how much time you’re currently spending on social media, then consider setting a time limit for social apps. A little less FOMO, and a little more time focused on you and the things in real life you enjoy could go a long way to boosting your mood over time.

 

Find your people

A good way to foster ongoing social interaction is to join a group that you have a lot in common with and connects regularly. This group could meet in-person, virtually, or a combination of the two. The structure gives you a consistent schedule to connect with people you naturally click with and enjoy.

For example, maybe you love reading, so you join a book club that meets monthly and has an active online chat between meetings. Or maybe there is a community within Sanvello that speaks to you and you participate in regularly. Religious and institutional groups can also provide these communities, and other potential resources include Meetup.com and event listings in your local area. These groups can enhance your sense of purpose and potentially spark new interest in your life.

 

Act extroverted for a little while

If you’re introverted (your energy is recharged by downtime, and spending time with people tends to drain it), try acting just a little bit more extroverted than you normally would—the results may surprise you. In a study earlier this year, researchers found that when participants altered their behavior in specific ways for just one week, those who had to be more “talkative, assertive, and spontaneous” reported higher measures of well-being.

The researchers concluded that while it’s not a good thing to “act against type” for a long period of time, branching out from your typical comfort zone and spending a bit more time connecting with others can result in greater contentment. It’s worth a try: This week, consider committing to one group activity you may typically turn down. “Fake it until you make it” by taking that small step, then see if that time spent with others actually made you feel a little better.

 

Look for little moments

A recent neuroscience experiment with mice found that just one month of isolation resulted in the shrinkage of neurons in the sensory and motor parts of the mice’s brains. Humans are social creatures (more so than mice!), so consider making regular social interaction part of your everyday routine.

It’s all too easy, especially if you work from home or live in a rural area, to go hours or days without interacting with another human. Make it a point to pick up the phone, run an errand, or join a friend for coffee.

Look for the little moments where you can connect with someone, even if just for a few minutes. From lingering at the water cooler instead of rushing to your desk, to calling someone on your walk instead of listening to a podcast, we all have time for conversation in our day. It’s not an exaggeration to say that meaningfully connecting with others as important as the air we breathe.

 

By Monika Roots
Chief Medical Officer, Sanvello

Dr. Roots practiced as a child, adolescent, and adult psychiatrist. She was also a Clinical Adjunct Assistant Professor at University of Wisconsin-Madison and was most recently the Vice President of Health Services and Behavioral Health for Teladoc Health. In 2016, Teladoc Health acquired her business, CogCubed, a behavioral health analytics company. Dr. Roots earned her MD from University of Sint Eustatius School of Medicine and completed psychiatry residency and fellowship in child/adolescent psychiatry at the University of Minnesota.