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Unpacking the Challenges of Social Health in the Digital Age

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Social Health and the Digital Age

Americans are more digitally connected than ever before, yet numerous studies show that we are increasingly unhappy. Why is that? Dallas Hartwig and Pilar Gerasimo help us unpack the challenges of social health in the digital age.

We’ve been encouraged to think of diet and exercise as the basis for good health, but what about our social health —  our contacts, connections, relationships, and social patterns? Dallas Hartwig, a two-time bestselling author, cofounder Whole9, and our 2015 July/August cover subject, thinks we’re overlooking this underappreciated health domain. But why is that? This is the question that sparked the idea for the conversation that followed — between Dallas and our founding editor Pilar Gerasimo.

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Via an online-based chat hosted on our Facebook page, Dallas and Pilar helped us unpack the challenges of social health in today’s digitally driven world. They touched on everything from why touch makes a difference in talking with your partner to practical ways you can put yourself out there while you’re traveling.

While we recognize the irony of using social media to discuss social media in this way, we are grateful for its existence so we have a forum to host important conversations like this one. The goal of this chat was to leave participants feeling energized and inspired to have more satisfying connections and embrace the digital world in a more intentional way.

We hope you enjoying some of the chat’s key takeaways listed below (in no particular order), followed by the full dialogue, which you can also access directly on our Facebook Page.

10 Practical Ways to Feel More Connected

  1. “If you want to feel (or be) more connected, you have to make yourself available. I like to travel abroad, and a striking difference elsewhere (even in places like Europe where they have a comparable availability of technology and connectivity) is how much less people bury their heads in their phones at every opportunity. Here, everyone in line at Starbucks is on their phones, but elsewhere, people are chatting or daydreaming or reading a book.” — Dallas
  2. “Don’t be afraid to meet people you want to meet. The other thing I’d add is ‘join a group.’ Any kind of group. Fitness. Stamp collecting. Book club. Gardening group. Doesn’t really matter. There’s some decent research that suggests joining any kind of group (that meets in person) can reduce by half your chances of dying in the next year. It’s that powerful a health-and-happiness promoter.” — Pilar
  3. “Be the risk taker. Be the one who introduces yourself. Talk to people at the grocery store. Be a bit willing to feel like the weirdo who talks to strangers! Whenever someone speaks to me in public, I usually appreciate it rather than thinking they’re odd.” — Dallas
  4. “If you’ve got your eyes locked on your smartphone whenever you are out in public, your chances of meeting anybody or interacting with anybody in any meaningful way just plummet. Eye contact is becoming increasingly rare.” — Pilar
  5. “Assess your use of media,  because, just like with processed food, it can displace better stuff. Don’t spend an hour on Facebook before bed — call your friend or Mum or make a dinner date.” — Dallas
  6. “I like talking to older people. They almost always have time, and in many cases they are cool folks with a lot to say. I also talk to people with pets. Natural conversation piece and there’s love and cuteness right there in the middle of everything, which always feels good.” — Pilar
  7. “I’m of the opinion that your best sleep occurs when the bed is reserved primarily for sleeping and intimate physical touch (not necessarily just sex). So I’d probably recommend that you read, drink tea, meditate, or otherwise ‘wind down’ — just not in bed. One of the problems with media right before bed is that the blue light wavelength from the screen disrupts melatonin secretion, which is critical for deep, restorative sleep.” — Dallas
  8. “Physical touch is a huge component. Because people can chat and be verbally supportive, but a supportive touch is an entirely other level of support (that we wouldn’t typically accept from an acquaintance). Trust and support begets more trust and support.” — Dallas
  9. “Sometimes, too, I’ll tell the person in my yoga class, ‘Hey, it was nice practicing next to you tonight.’ Or something like that. I really do think everybody gets a surge of oxytocin and happy neurotransmitters from unexpected little exchanges like that. Most of the time, we don’t even feel seen.” — Pilar
  10. “Being seen is acknowledgement of someone’s worth as a person, and we all need that.” — Dallas

The full Facebook conversation between Dallas, Pilar, and other participants is outlined below. 

EL Question #1: Why is social health so important? That is, in-person, real-time relating vs. social media and virtual interaction.

Dallas Hartwig | We all know that humans are deeply and intrinsically social creatures, and we are “wired to connect.” But the way our brains perceive what constitutes that “connection” does not account for electronic media and other ways that we communicate with people other than talking face-to-face. If we don’t have enough in-person interactions with supportive people, our brains understand that as not having people to help and take care of us, and that generates a stressful experience. The other issue is that these electronic media can displace some more meaningful, “nutritious” interactions. I liken these social media to processed food: novel to our brains and bodies, stimulating in an unnatural manner and at a “supra-normal” level, and providing us with far less nourishment in terms of giving us beneficial “substances” (such as the oxytocin response we get from in-person interactions).

Pilar Gerasimo | Totally. And as with processed food, it’s hard to know when you’ve had enough. Or too much. The cravings persist, but there’s no satisfaction signal to tell you are done and can move on now.

Vani Hari (Food Babe) Pilar Gerasimo — interesting parallel to processed food!

PG Plus, for a lot of people, social media actually winds up being stressful. Like: Did I just get dissed? Why is no one “liking” my stuff? How come that person didn’t “friend” me back? We start looking to “likes” and retweets as reassurance we are valued and connected, but there’s not a lot of substance or certainty there.

Tyler L. Sounds like it could lead to a depressed state, if you’re faking yourself into thinking you’re having meaningful connections via social media. Is that correct?

DH Tyler, I haven’t seen causative research on that, but I think it’s a solid hypothesis. There are some strong associations between mood and social media use, though it’s difficult to tell whether lonely people use social media more than others, or whether the actual “processed” interactions directly erode mood. I suspect it’s both. On a subconscious level, I think it’s clear that our brains don’t perceive interactions such as these as “real” in that we get a very different neurohormonal response, and that likely affects health over time.

Danae C. Is oxytocin never released via online interaction & only in person?

DH Danae, my understanding is that it is not, no. Oxytocin isn’t the only important hormone involved in social interactions, but it’s the most well-studied. I’ve even read where just talking to someone in person can cause an oxytocin release, but that doesn’t happen with typing on a keyboard or screen.

DC | I know there is plenty of research on this topic backing your premises, but there being quantifiable data regarding hormones etc. is intriguing to me.

PG | I know it’s not exactly the same thing, but I think the basic neurobiology is similar (assuming the social experience is a pleasurable one) — “A Real Pleasure

PG | And here’s one on loneliness that I think is relevant, too: “The Loneliness Trap

EL | QUESTION #2 — What advice would you give to someone who is feeling disconnected?

DH It might sound a little trite, but if you want to feel (or be) more connected, you have to make yourself available. I like to travel abroad, and a striking difference elsewhere (even in places like Europe where they have a comparable availability of technology and connectivity) is how much less people bury their heads in their phones at every opportunity. Here, everyone in line at Starbucks is on their phones, but elsewhere, people are chatting or daydreaming or reading a book.

DH Another important thing is assessing your use of media, because, just like with processed food, it can displace better stuff. Don’t spend an hour on Facebook before bed — call your friend or Mum or make a dinner date.

TL Dallas, I know it’s not a great practice, but I use social media to zone out before bed — especially because my wife wants the light off. It’s a mindless practice I enjoy. What can I replace that with that won’t disturb my bed partner?

DH Tyler Lineburg — Well, not that you asked, but I’m of the opinion that your best sleep occurs when the bed is reserved primarily for sleeping and intimate physical touch (not necessarily just sex). So I’d probably recommend that you read, drink tea, meditate, or otherwise “wind down” — just not in bed. One of the problems with media right before bed is that the blue light wavelength from the screen disrupts melatonin secretion, which is critical for deep, restorative sleep.

DH | In public, getting connected with others requires a bit of work. They are not typically going to come to you to beg you to interact with them. Be the risk taker. Be the one who introduces yourself. Talk to people at the grocery store. Be a bit willing to feel like the weirdo who talks to strangers! Whenever someone speaks to me in public, I usually appreciate it rather than thinking they’re odd.

PG | I love that. I feel the same way. Don’t be afraid to meet people you want to meet. The other thing I’d add is “join a group.” Any kind of group. Fitness. Stamp collecting. Book club. Gardening group. Doesn’t really matter. There’s some decent research that suggests joining any kind of group (that meets in person) can reduce by half your chances of dying in the next year. It’s that powerful a health-and-happiness promoter.

DH Pilar, YES! I have a group of guys that meet monthly. It’s a “book club,” but we spend most of the time talking about our lives, current events, and philosophy, and some of these guys have grown to be my most trusted friends. So starting something (anything!) new can open all sorts of doors to human connection.

PG I have a guitar group where we hang out and sing songs and play tambourines and stuff. Totally fun. I started it because I wanted to learn how to play. Who knew we’d all become fast friends and be hanging out 15 years later.

EL So instead of trying to read a book, send a text, drink your coffee and talk to the person in line next to you — all at once — we might try just focusing on one one of these experience versus all of them.

PG But that’s hard to do if you’re at home plugged into your computer all the time. And if you’ve got your eyes locked on your smartphone whenever you are out in public, your chances of meeting anybody or interacting with anybody in any meaningful way just plummet. Eye contact is becoming increasingly rare.

DH | Yes. I had an experience in Berlin a few years ago that really stuck with me. I was just sitting waiting for an appointment, and ended up taking to the person next to me — and that’s what EVERYONE else there was doing. It was incredible, and felt so…human.

PG | I like talking to older people. They almost always have time, and in many cases they are cool folks with a lot to say. I also talk to people with pets. Natural conversation piece and there’s love and cuteness right there in the middle of everything, which always feels good.

PG Sometimes, too, I’ll tell the person in my yoga class, “Hey, it was nice practicing next to you tonight.” Or something like that. I really do think everybody gets a surge of oxytocin and happy neurotransmitters from unexpected little exchanges like that. Most of the time, we don’t even feel seen.

PG Of course, you do that wrong, it sounds like a come-on … 🙂

DH | Pilar, as you say, we sometimes assume negative (or hilarious) things about strangers. The culture of fear and suspicion gets in the way of a simple, non-creepy exchange.

PG Dallas, do you think that people avoid in-person interactions BECAUSE they feel so much riskier and easier to mess up?

DH | Absolutely! People are scary. Emotions are messy. Someone has hurt us in the past, and we are wary of being hurt again, even in low-risk social situations. But just look at the way that young people today interact: many strongly prefer text, or some other method, to talking on the phone or meeting up in person. The digitization of social interactions is rampant, I think partly because it feels safer.

DH Of course the irony is that in withdrawing to what we think is a lower-risk type of interacting, we isolate ourselves and only increase the desire for connection, which drives more social media interactions, etc., etc.

PG Totally, and I read this piece in NY Times yesterday about the dating culture and how it is being eviscerated by Tinder, etc. It seems like a whole chunk of a generation is losing the skills of relating socially — beyond swiping and texting for hookups. Which is totally creepy. It might lead to an in-person connection, but man, the quality and nature of that connection just doesn’t seem too promising to me.

DH Pilar, that piece was pretty disturbing, since the social dysfunctions are so pervasive that they’re now garnering mainstream media attention.

LR Regarding losing social skills — it reminds me of the shift from analogue sound to digital (live music/vinyl to CDs to mp3s) and the loss of the wealth of audio information. Digital sound is often just a shadow, a suggestion of the former richness and those who grew up without it are unsure what they are missing. Likewise with social skills – there may be the appearance of interaction without authentic intimacy.

DC | I would also add, regarding the younger generations & their preference for digital communication, it may feel “safer” but those convos usually end up more easily spiraling out of control b/c no face contact, tone, etc. I always advise teens to use texting for information, not conversation.

DC | I love that Pilar brought up the point of “being seen.” Treating people like people is important even if it doesn’t end up being a long convo or relationship.

DH Absolutely, Danae. “Being seen” is acknowledgement of someone’s worth as a person, and we ALL need that.

DC | I wonder if that’s what in part causes the release of oxytocin: the perception that one is valued.

DH | Danae, that’s an interesting question, and I don’t know the answer.

DC | Looks like reading up on oxytocin is in my near future!

PG From what I understand, oxytocin release can happen as the result of any pleasurable connecting or bonding experience. Feeling valued (or even seen) would seem part of that. I’ll try and find a piece we did on oxytocin a while back. Fascinating topic. I first heard about it from a Swedish book editor who was working on a book about it I think 14 years ago, and it just blew my mind.

DH | Danae Massey Casteel — I’ll add that it’s easy to get myopic. Don’t make my mistake and oversimplify oxytocin. Look at AVP and the whole stress response system.

PG I’m with Dallas on that. There’s a whole WORLD of chemicals involved with social interaction. Fascinating stuff. And wildly complex.

DC | Thanks for the heads up, Dallas & Pilar, I would love to read whatever you have. Thanks!

[Editor’s Note: Learn more in Emotional Biochemistry” by Pilar Gerasimo.]

EL Thank you, Dallas Hartwig, for SO many fantastic, practical ways we can feel more connect, more HUMAN, as you say. Let’s build on that. QUESTION #3: You are giving a cool talk related to some of this at the upcoming Ancestral Health Conference in New Zealand. Can you tell us a little about it?

DH Sure! My current interest lies in helping people navigate the complex modern world, and specifically how to address the increasingly-common social isolation and what I’ll go so far as to call overt loneliness. Almost everyone I speak to tells me that they wish they “had more time” to connect with friends or family, or to share recreational activities with others. So I’m going to discuss why these social interactions matter more than we used to think, and how that affects human health, but most importantly, what to DO about it. And that’s the hard part, I think.

DH I think that most people still underappreciate the importance of social interactions in long-term health, and I’d like to shine more of a light on that.

Hala S. In the book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell talks about a group of people from an Italian village called Roseto who moved to the United States in the late 1800s. A large number of them moved together and maintained the same type of lifestyle they had in Roseto, and up until the 1950s, the doctors in the part of Pennsylvania where they settled were confused as to why NONE of the men from Roseto were ever diagnosed with heart disease. After looking into it, the only explanation he was able to find was the intense social connection, community, and sense of having a strong support system kept these men from what at the time was an epidemic of heart disease in the United States. This was fascinating to me, and the talk Dallas plans on giving reminds me of that story. [Editor’s note: Read the study here.]

DH Hala Saleh — Yes! There are SO many examples of this, but since relationships are tough to build and touch to quantify, it’s hard to “prescribe” more friends to improve your health.

HS |Understood, but the first step starts with engaging the people you already know and making time for social connection. Too often we have already allocated our “free time” for TV, surfing the web, or other things that don’t contribute to our social connections. I myself started making more of an effort to DO STUFF with people I know, and it’s not always easy, and it’s not always comfortable, but it can have an interesting and beautiful snowball effect.

EL | What other questions do you have for Dallas?

James M. | Facebook. Positive community or unhealthy technology obsession?

DH A tool that is created to make us “need” to use it. The need, of course, is perceived and not real, but there is a social pressure and “pull” towards using it too often, probably to the detriment of the user.

FBHey, Dallas Hartwig and James Maskell — But it’s beneficial to create a movement and pressure corporations to do the right thing smile emoticon

JM | Agreed, Food Babe… great way to build and develop a following.

PG I’m with all of you. And a great way to meet people that one might actually want to connect and collaborate with in meaningful ways. That’s all good.

FB The irony of this — is I want to hang out with all three of you right now over dinner 🙂 haha.

EL We do want to address that we’re not overlooking the bit of irony of tonight 🙂 We’re grateful for online platforms like Facebook for allowing us to connect with each other and host these kinds of conversations but recognize there is a great need to use these platforms more mindfully and with greater intention.

JM | Dallas Hartwig, Food Babe, how excited are you to see the science of social genomics coming around to prove the immense power of community to empower good health outcomes? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CaXGKTL2ar4

PG | This is a must-see video — great info. Loved the stuff on social alienation/rejection as massive stress source (and inflammatory trigger).

AC | Dallas, regarding how our brains “perceive” electronic support vs in person support — if we are comparing a neurophysiological response of “contact” electronically vs in person, how does the natural physical contact that occurs during in person interactions (from hugs to a brief touch on a shoulder) influence the comparison?

DH  The physical touch is a huge component. Because people can chat and be verbally supportive, but a supportive touch is an entirely other level of support (that we wouldn’t typically accept from an acquaintance).

DH Think of it this way: talking + touching > just talking.

AC | Absolutely, and I would assume that as that initial connection gets more familiar, the talk/touch continuum just magnifies the feelings of support, both emotionally and neurologically.

DH  Yeah, I think that’s correct. Trust and support begets more trust and support.

Editor’s note: Copyediting was made in some cases above for clarity and readability. Links were added by the editorial team.

 


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