Marta Zaraska is a Canadian-Polish science journalist and the author of, most recently, Growing Young: How Friendship, Optimism and Kindness Can Help You Live to 100.
Social isolation is disastrous for health – both mental and physical. That’s bad news in COVID-times, when we are told to stay home and avoid others.
As a journalist who specializes in psychology and health, I’ve spent the past few years exploring the many connections between sociability, mental thriving and our physiology. I’ve discovered that socially isolated people are more likely to die prematurely, have shorter telomeres (parts of the DNA that function as protective caps at the ends of chromosomes, and play an important part in aging) and show increased expression of genes related to cancer progression.
They are even more vulnerable to viruses (ironic, yes). Those who experience chronic social isolation have a different expression of genes responsible for antiviral response and for antibody production, which makes them more susceptible to such pathogens.
Of course, I’m not saying that we should throw in the towel and stop isolating coronavirus patients on hospital wards or give up on lockdowns and physical distancing. Not at all. But we must be aware of the consequences.
Social integration is vital for longevity. Having a loving romantic relationship, friends you can rely on, neighbours who care – all these taken together can lower your mortality risk by as much as 65 per cent. A healthy diet is important, yes, but doesn’t come close. Eating six or more servings of fruits and vegetables a day, versus zero, lowers the risk of mortality by about 26 per cent. Study after study shows that people of any age who have poor social relations suffer more heart attacks, strokes, diabetes and even pregnancy complications.
Acts such as kindness, volunteering and finding purpose in life also matter for our health. Volunteers have a 29-per-cent lower risk of high blood glucose, a roughly 17-per-cent lower risk of high inflammation levels and spend 38 per cent fewer nights in hospitals than do people who shy from involvement in charities. In one California study, participants who were assigned to conduct random acts of kindness had their leukocyte genes less tuned toward inflammation. Down the road this could mean lower risk of cancer, rheumatoid arthritis and heart disease. You don’t have to single-handedly change the world for the better to get these benefits, either. Simple everyday kindness is enough. Make a cup of tea for your spouse. Go shopping for your elderly neighbour. Pick up trash that litters your street.
There is nothing New-Agey about how our relationships or mental states connect with our health. The links are biological. Our social hormones such as oxytocin and serotonin, our stress response systems, and even the few trillion microbes that reside in our guts, all link our social and psychological functioning with our physiology – for better or for worse. And I believe that after the dust settles on the COVID-19 pandemic, it could well be for the better.
There are reasons to be optimistic about the long-term effects of the pandemic on our health. The current outbreak is putting a new spotlight on such issues as social isolation, community involvement and the quality of our relationships. It has helped many of us realize how much we need our friends and our family, how much we crave hugs and physical contact. Some of us finally have more time to contemplate purpose in life, its meaning.
We are also talking more about things such as domestic violence and the pain of loneliness. Locked down in our communities, we have rediscovered how important it is to know those who live next door. In one American survey, 66 per cent of people said they are contacting friends and family more often than they did pre-COVID-19. Almost half have checked on their elderly or sick neighbours. Donations to charity are up, too, both in the United States and Canada.
I live in a tiny French village in the middle of nowhere, yet the pandemic has hit us hard. Back in the spring we were put on an almost total lockdown for 56 days. It was tough – yet the hardship also helped us reconnect with neighbours and fostered good will. Every day at 8 p.m., for more than eight weeks, we joined the rest of our village to clap, honk and bang on pots as loud as we could. The official reasoning was that we cheered for doctors and nurses waging war against COVID-19. In reality, however, we clapped for ourselves, too. It helped us feel connected, a part of a community.
Kindness was up, too. Many people started putting uplifting messages on their garbage bins – drawings of flowers and rainbows, “merci” scribbled among them – so that those collecting our potentially infected trash would feel appreciated.
It made me feel hopeful. Hopeful that we may emerge from all this better off – not just happier, but also healthier. If the pandemic teaches us to be more neighbourly, to value our relationships and to look for meaning, not only the quality of our lives could go up, but our physical health could profit, too. And that would better prepare us for viruses and challenges yet to come.
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