Emotional Health

A New Year’s Resolution Worth Keeping

A few weeks ago, I visited the Morgan Library and Museum in New York City to see the spectacular Renaissance painting Visitation by Jacopo da Pontormo (1494–1556). I wound up staying to see the other exhibits on view. Among them was the beautifully curated “It’s Alive! Frankenstein at 200about Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein — the original book and the various iterations of the tale.

While there are differences in the degree of the monstrosity of the creature in each version, almost all present Frankenstein with one very human characteristic: the need for contact. Frankenstein’s monster may not be fully alive, but he retained the one defining feature of his species, the need for a friend.

This theme can be seen in other monster movies, notably the enduring King Kong, which has just made his Broadway debut. The most indelible image of the 1933 original film is Kong’s gentle cradling of Fay Wray in his palm and the look of longing in his eyes. Similarly, in Steven Spielberg’s E.T., the alien bonds with children who find him with the unforgettable words, “Phone home.”

It is not news that people need human connection, but lately evidence has been mounting to suggest that loneliness may be killing us.

“Researchers claim that loneliness will be classified an epidemic by 2030, and the former U.S. Surgeon General has described loneliness as one of the country’s most pressing health risks. The effects of social isolation are so severe that studies have shown that it actually has the power to remap the makeup of human cells.

The decline of social connection has been blamed for issues like the opioid epidemic, the rise in racial tensions, and the escalation of suicide. Feeling embedded and supported by a family, a religious group, or a community has long been a bulwark against loneliness, but as those institutions have evolved and frayed, more and more we are left to our own devices to make social connections and reinforce them.

An interesting European study has shed some light about what kinds of connections matter most, however. Comparing disparate cultures, they found, surprisingly, that the family embedded southern European style might not be as healthy as the more independent but socially integrated northern model:

“Results showed that the Tuscans were less likely than the Dutch to be living alone, more likely to be living with children, less active in voluntary associations, and less likely to be involved in volunteer work. In addition, the Tuscans had smaller networks, but received more social and emotional support per network member. The main finding was that the higher level of loneliness among the Tuscans was attributable to being less socially integrated than the Dutch. On the average, Tuscan older adults had fewer friends, less intensive contacts with their neighbors, and fewer exchanges with family members, and that was why they were more vulnerable to loneliness than their Dutch counterparts.”

In other words, in Tuscany, Grandma might be living with her family, but have fewer connections of her own outside the family than a comparable Dutch woman, leaving her dependent on them for most of her social interaction and support.

This research has some interesting implications. It appears that while family connections are far from negative, feeling embedded in the larger community and having independent sources of social interactions may be more important in combating loneliness.

This makes a certain amount of intuitive sense. In a tale of two grandmas, it seems logical that the one who has friends and activities outside the home might be happier overall, even if she lives alone, than the older woman who lives with her family but doesn’t have much of a sense of worthiness and connection outside the immediate family.

This may also explain the often-observed phenomenon of why widows fare so much better than widowers. Unless they remarry, men are much more likely to die than widows. It is believed that because men are traditionally more dependent on wives and family for social support, they are much less prepared to cope when they lose them. Women, on the other hand, usually have more friends outside marriage and family, and when left alone, they feel, in fact, less alone.

Poor social connections can have as much impact on health as smoking, and their influence on emotional health is equally devastating. Strengthening the bonds of friendship and intimacy, in other words, may be the single best improvement you can make in the New Year. Even if you feel overwhelmed with family demands, social media, and work obligations, it is important to assess the quality of these interactions.

For example, while teenagers may feel more interconnected than any previous generation, with news of all their peers’ activities and thoughts constantly streaming on their phones, they are less likely to actually spend real “facetime” with them. They are even less likely than previous generations to have sex. Many adults, too, have seen sexual intimacy diminished by the ubiquitous availability of online pornography.

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