Are you Lonely?

Did you know that loneliness has a negative impact on your health? A professor at the University of Chicago, John T. Cacioppo, carried out a study and found that loneliness could significantly increase the risk of death from stroke and heart disease!

The reason for this is due to an organizing principle of the brain. Your brain is constantly scanning your environment for threats; it is either moving you away from a perceived threat or toward a perceived reward. Loneliness results in your brain generating a threat response. Being in a threat “state” over a long period of time can result in too much stress being placed on your mind and body, and has a negative impact on your overall health and well-being.

So, the antidote to this is to recognize the social nature of your brain and the importance of having a number of positive social connections. This will result in you not only increasing your general happiness in life, but it will also improve your performance at work and ultimately even help you live longer! Why? Because by having good quality and positive social connections means your brain moves into a “reward” state where your happiness produces a good amount of two neurochemicals called dopamine and oxytocin. Oxytocin is a chemical that is “associated with bonding, maternal care, sexual behavior and normal social attachments and facilitates a behavior approach” (Your Brain at Work by David Rock).

When you walk into a room full of strangers, your brain defaults to the threat state. Most of us know this feeling! You find it difficult to interact comfortably with people and you feel much more guarded and conservative in your approach. This is your brain “protecting” you from potential danger. So, what do you do to move quickly out of this state?

It is the simple stuff that you already know. Recognise firstly that others will be in the same position as you; their brain will perceive you as a threat too! So offer a handshake, introduce yourself and get (and use) the other person’s name as the starting point, along with a smile. Discuss something that you have in common - for example, the typical British approach of talking about the weather works! - and as you develop more feelings of closeness, oxytocin will be released in your brain which will then have a knock on effect of improving your sense of bonding and relatedness to the individual.

The choice is yours…more positive social connections lead to a happier and healthier life as you use a different part of your brain than you would when you view someone as an enemy or a competitor. Moving into the “toward” state will improve your capabilities in thinking and planning; you will be able to control your emotions more effectively; you will see situations from different perspectives; you will gain more insights and broaden your own thinking. In addition your memory will improve and you will learn things more quickly. That’s quite an exhaustive list of benefits just from having more friends or collaborating more with others!

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