We Are Not Alone in Our Need for Social Connectedness

May 27, 2020

By: Christopher Bergland | Psychology Today

One determinant of health and survival in humans and other social animals is connectedness, according to a recently published review of the role that social interaction plays in the morbidity and mortality rates of humans and other highly social mammals. These findings (Snyder-Mackler et al., 2020) were published on May 22 in the journal Science

For this analysis, first author Noah Snyder-Mackler of Duke University’s Department of Evolutionary Anthropology—along with over a dozen other researchers from different institutions across the United States—reviewed how social factors influence human and nonhuman mammals’ health and longevity. They found similar responses to social isolation, early-life adversity, and social integration across all social mammals, including humans.

In addition to reviewing human studies, some of the other social animals included in this analysis were dolphins, bighorn sheep, monkeys, orcas, rock hyraxes, and wild horses.

“Social adversity is closely linked to health and mortality outcomes in humans, across the life course,” the authors explain. “These observations have recently been extended to other social mammals, in which social integration, social status, and early-life adversity have been shown to predict natural life spans in wild populations and molecular, physiological, and disease outcomes in experimental animal models.”

Although the link between someone’s social environment and his or her risk of premature mortality has been known for some time in humans, the same general phenomenon has only recently been studied widely in other social mammals.

Despite many obvious factors that differentiate the social environments of humans vs. nonhuman mammals, observing how other social animals respond to things like isolation and early-life adversity provides valuable insights into our evolutionary roots and primal need to feel a sense of belonging.

Coexisting Opposites: How Do We Stay Socially Connected While Socially Distancing?

One of the few silver linings of enduring the COVID-19 pandemic in the year 2020 is that we are better equipped technologically than at any other time in human history to stay socially connected while also social distancing.

Interestingly, the same social media platforms and screen time habits that were vilified for diminishing the quality of face-to-face interactions and weakening authentic social bonds a few months ago, suddenly seem like a godsend during an era of mandated self-isolation and stay-at-home orders.

This remarkable 180° turnaround is exemplified by the title and theme of Sherry Turkle’s 2011 book, Alone Together, being inverted and co-opted as something positive in the Twitter hashtag #TogetherAlone, which illustrates how social media and screen time help us stay socially connected during coronavirus quarantines. 

Nevertheless, when circumstances force social animals to physically isolate, the stress of being disconnected and a sense of perceived social isolation (that is real) can increase inflammation and the likelihood of developing other diseases, which can lead to a shorter life span over time. 

Public health experts agree: We need to implement social distancing to “flatten the curve” and prevent the rapid spread of coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) from overwhelming health care systems. However, from a public health perspective, it’s also clear that social isolation is bad for our health.

Bob Yirka of Medical Xpress does a deeper dive into this conundrum in a May 22 report on the latest Science paper by Snyder-Mackler et al. (2020). He writes:

Many of the adverse conditions that tend to arise in animals or people undergoing isolation are the same ones that medical researchers have been describing as preconditions that make people more susceptible to unfavorable outcomes in COVID-19—thus, self-isolating could be increasing people’s chances of having more severe symptoms should they become infected.” 

This creates a catch-22. On the one hand, we need to maintain social distancing and isolate to prevent the spread of COVID-19; on the other hand, we need to stay socially connected and integrated to reduce life-threatening morbidity. Walking the tightrope of simultaneously maintaining both social distancing and social connection is something that people around the globe will be trying to navigate successfully for months (or years) to come.

There are no easy answers. But, the latest review by Noah Snyder-Mackler and colleagues on the “social determinants of health and survival in humans and other animals” reminds us that making an effort to stay socially connected (without exacerbating the spread of SARS-CoV-2) is of paramount importance to our health and survival.

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