In the 2000 film Cast Away, Tom Hanks plays an obsessive, clock-watching businessman, who finds himself stranded on an isolated Pacific island. The character copes with his four years of social disconnection and loneliness in part by befriending a ball, which he names Wilson. The loneliness becomes so consuming that he gives a face to an object in order to feel someone or something is witnessing his survival, seeing his life pass by. He longs so deeply for some kind of connection that he humanises this ball. He interacts and confides in it and it is a very moving scene when he finally and irretrievably loses his ball to the ocean currents.
Humans have an innate need for experiencing social connection. Without it, the risk of loneliness slowly sets in. According to the research, the heightened risk of mortality from loneliness equals that of smoking 15 cigarettes a day or being an alcoholic and exceeds the health risks associated with obesity. The multiple physical effects of loneliness make us more susceptible to cancers and other illnesses, hardening our arteries, putting us at higher risk of strokes and heart attacks and even corroding our brains.
People who are more isolated from others than they want to be find that they are less happy, their health declines earlier in mid-life, their brain functioning declines sooner and they live shorter lives than people who are not lonely.
So why does loneliness have such a profound effect on us?
The reasons trace back to humanity’s evolutionary history when people needed each other to stay alive. As a consequence, we have been hard-wired for relationships. We are a social species and, just as a lack of food and water results in powerful mental and physical consequences, so does isolation.
We know that you can be lonely in a crowd and you can be lonely in a marriage. The studies have shown that it’s not just the number of friends you have and it’s not whether or not you’re in a committed relationship, but it’s the quality of your close relationships that matters.
One of the longest studies to date is the Harvard Study of Adult Development. Researchers studied people from the time they were teenagers all the way into old age to see what keeps people happy and healthy. For 75 years they tracked the lives of 724 men, year after year, asking about their work, their home lives, their health and, of course, asking all along the way, without knowing how their life stories were going to turn out. The clearest message that came from this study is that good relationships keep us happier and healthier. People who are more socially connected to family, to friends, to community, are happier, they’re physically healthier and they live longer.
The Harvard study found that it wasn’t middle age cholesterol levels that predicted how they were going to grow old. It was how satisfied they were in their relationships. The people who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80. And good, close relationships seem to protect us from some of the challenges and pains getting old.
Most of us probably know this to some extent. We are aware to some degree that loneliness is detrimental on many levels and that relationships are a buffer to life’s mountains, but why then are these good relationships so difficult to establish and maintain? More importantly, why are we not teaching the importance of relationship building and maintenance at schools. From childhood we are told to work hard, study more, finish homework, then choose the best university path. Then we are encouraged to climb ladders, self-develop, become successful, earn more money. There is a constant push and reminder to achieve.
We live in a life where fixes should be quick and we seek something we can get that’ll make our lives good and keep them that way. Relationships are often complicated and difficult to tend and this never ends. It takes input and work to protect the space between people.
This space between is a core theme in our work as imago therapists in working with couples. It may seem as though there isn’t anything between two people who share a relationship. But there is. Connection exists between everything and is everywhere. The intangibles are often the invisible glue that holds relationships together. Words, touches, tone of voice all contribute to the energy field that lives between two people. These interactions in the space-between directly determine the experience inside the space and the condition of the relationship. Where people feel connected, the space between is safe and it becomes easy to breathe in it. Our connection to others is where our energy should focus in order to create this good life. It seems as though doing the work to develop good relationships results in an individual reward of happiness and longer life.
Social connectedness, much like other health-seeking behaviours, takes time and effort and needs to become a habit. In the same way that we plan to exercise regularly or are disciplined in our eating, we need to make a conscious effort to cultivate and maintain relationships. To reach out and connect to others.
With our deeper relationships, it’s about carving out intentional time and being truly present in that time. This is particularly important with our elderly relatives. If you want them to live longer and happier lives, the greatest gift you can give them is your time.
The evidence suggests that, while face to face time is best, a phone call comes a close second, but a text message does not. In fact, the jury is out on social media entirely. Depending on how it is used, it’s been shown to make people even lonelier, even though it can help connect people to a family or friend network they would otherwise find difficult to remain in touch with.
Covid-19 has pushed loneliness further into the public conversation as people across the country have stayed home, afraid of contracting and spreading the deadly virus. Terms like ‘social distancing’, ‘self-isolation’, and ‘shelter in place’ accentuate the idea that Covid-19 has profound social implications. Perhaps the better that could come of this is the realisation of how intensely we need one another. How crucial the visibility of a smile is, how important time in conversation is with friends and family and how paramount human connection truly is.
I was watching the event in which Tatjana Schoenmaker won gold in Tokyo and finding myself amazed again at the beauty in people. Despite the usual respect for hours of dedication, discipline and preparation that go with competing at this level, what actually stood out for me was the cameraderie between these athletes. It almost transcended the competition. For moments it seemed as though not coming first didn’t even matter to the silver and bronze medallists. The fact that they probably all spent days over many years in the water, the connection between these humans congratulating the record-breaking winner was apparent. We see tremendous acts of kindness and social solidarity like this, all around us. Especially during these isolating times, the kind gestures really remind us of how united we are and how our divisions really aren’t that important.
A philosopher, Martin Buber, said “Man wishes to be confirmed in his being by man and wishes to have a presence in the being of the other….
Secretly and bashfully he watches for a YES which allows him to be and which can come to him only from one human person to another.”
Kirsten Watkins is a Counselling Psychologist and Imago Therapist in Kempton Park. She is specialised in couples therapy facilitating couples to connect after ruptures in their relationship and create a safe space where growth and healing can happen.