Loneliness is hardly a new concept, though its effects are being more closely examined—studies have shown how people of all life stages and backgrounds experience social isolation, with more than two-thirds of adults of all ages reporting moderate to high levels of loneliness, according to a 2018 study. Additional research has found that loneliness can have the same physical impact as smoking 15 cigarettes per day, physical inactivity, and air pollution. But we’re also at risk of overextending ourselves, too. Stress from our jobs and interpersonal relationships can cause emotional exhaustion, resulting in irritability, lack of motivation, and even depression. And our online networks aren’t doing much in the way of social fulfillment either. However, finding the right balance of social connection—and a strategic lack thereof—is possible.
Dubbed “social nutrition” by Jeffrey Hall, a researcher and professor of communication studies at the University of Kansas, the idea is that having variety in our daily interactions improves our well-being. To have a fully balanced social diet, we need a little bit of everything: Deep connections, surface-level chats, and alone time, Hall found in a recent study. In examining the everyday social interactions of nearly 400 participants from across the country, he and a co-author found that less lonely people had more frequent interactions with close friends and family. Those with higher senses of well-being and life satisfaction interacted with more people overall. But time spent alone was also important.
Hall said that a healthy social diet won’t look exactly the same for everyone. For example, a person who just moved to a new city and doesn’t have a ton of nearby connections will need to be more intentional with who they interact with; they might benefit from joining a club to meet new people, or setting aside concrete time for phone calls with friends from home. Someone with deeper ties to their community won’t have to act as consciously and can rely on familiar connections to meet their needs. But, in general, here are some tips for social interactions that can help most people achieve a socially nutritious diet.
Variety Is Key
Social relationships, like healthy diets, require balance. Fill out your social roster with work friends, close friends, and acquaintances you see at the gym, and protect some precious me-time. Rather than putting all of your eggs in a single social basket each day, Hall said, you should aim to have a conversation with a dear friend or family member, a lighthearted chat with a neighbor, and some time to reflect alone.
Maintaining variety in the types of people you interact with is also essential, said Emiliana Simon-Thomas, the science director Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley, and who was not affiliated with Hall’s study. “There are great benefits from having dialogue with a greater variety of people with respect to expertise, background, and ideology,” she said. “Having a diverse representation of social connections is valuable to individuals and collective progress, assuming people work in cooperative ways.”
Focus on Quality
Those with the healthiest social diets, according to Hall's research, had more meaningful conversations overall. And “meaningful” could be anything from a heart-to-heart to joking around, he said. Interactions with those closest to us are mutually beneficial: Chats with family and friends keep loneliness at bay for both conversation partners, Hall said. However, you needn’t have these conversations constantly. “You don’t need every single one of your meals to be a dense, heavy duty meal,” Hall said. “And I certainly think that we can relate that to the idea that if every conversation was super intense, we would be exhausted.”
Just because a social “meal” is more of a snack doesn’t mean it isn’t nutrient-dense. Spark small talk with strangers and acquaintances—these are happiness-promoting, low-stakes opportunities to feel connected to your community. According to Simon-Thomas, even a simple knowing glance can be enough to convey connection. “That exchange of a very minor or small smile, look of contentment can be all it takes to convey, in a strange way, the simplest thing, which is trust,” she said. “In the end, that doesn't feel like an expenditure.”
Don't Exhaust Yourself
Connecting with others requires energy. In fact, one study found that people actively avoid situations requiring them to feel empathy because it's too emotionally taxing. Because we each have a limited amount of emotional energy, we should be aware of the types of social interactions we’re having. “A good, functioning social energy system is one where we feel a high degree of connection, but not a lot of energy output,” Hall said. This means spending more time with people who energize you, and less time with those who leave you feeling drained.
We’re all pretty aware of those “energy vampires” in our lives—the people who constantly depend on our emotional support—Hall said, so becoming intentional with our social interactions can help us not only avoid emotional burnout but experience a more enriching social diet.
Enjoy the Alone Time
Though Hall said he can’t pinpoint an exact amount of time every individual should be spending alone, he said you’ll get the most benefits out of time you actually want to spend alone. “What really matters when you’re alone is you say I’m not lonely, I have no need to be with anybody else, and I’m quite content,” Hall said.
If you find yourself spending a great deal of time in solitude but wishing you weren’t, that’s a problem. In this case, you’ll need to make a conscious effort to invest in your relationships, Simon-Thomas said. “Strengthening the relationships,” further solidifying the fact that hey, we’re friends and this feels nice!, she said, “in many regards, that is an act of self-care.”
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