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Let's Resolve to Combat Social Isolation in 2015

As counterintuitive as it might seem, taking care of ourselves begins by reaching out to those around us -- by building the bridges of belonging that link us to one another.
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New Year's resolutions usually revolve around goals for self-improvement, from eating more greens to hitting the gym to learning a new language or skill. But, as counterintuitive as it might seem, taking care of ourselves begins by reaching out to those around us -- by building the bridges of belonging that link us to one another.

After all, as Maya Angelou once wrote, "Nobody, but nobody / Can make it out here alone." Human beings are social creatures. We rely on others to help us thrive and grow. And when those human connections are absent or lost, our suffering is profound. Social isolation is not only an affliction of the mind and soul but also of the body. It can affect a person's physical health just as much as his or her emotional life.

It is tragic but perhaps not surprising that some groups are more vulnerable to social isolation than others. Impaired mobility can make it hard to engage in social activities, which is one reason why the disabled, elderly, and sick are at particular risk. But research has found that the link between isolation and physical wellbeing runs in both directions.

A 2007 study by Dr. Steve Cole, a professor of medicine and psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine, found that sustained periods of loneliness can lead to a change in gene expression, bringing about inflammation, higher levels of stress hormones, and a weakened immune system, all conditions that make us more susceptible to illness. Researchers from Brigham Young University concluded that isolation is as much of a health risk as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. And a 2012 study showed that patients aged 45-80 who lived alone had a higher risk for heart disease and a greater chance of dying than those who lived with others.

Put simply, social isolation is a threat to human health.

Yet, through my work studying isolation and listening to the people who know it most intimately, I am convinced that this devastating affliction is both treatable and preventable. And because the bonds that connect us to one another run both ways, we can often tackle treatment and prevention simultaneously.

Each of us can play a part in curing someone else's isolation, and in the process, build up our own resilience. So why not add one of these ideas to your resolutions for 2015?

Volunteer. Giving your time and support to someone else is one of the best antidotes to isolation -- whether that means alleviating another person's loneliness, or reaffirming your own place in the social fabric. Helping to ease another's burden is an affirmative gesture of solidarity and community. And your support will not only lift others' lives, but improve your own as well. Volunteers often describe a "helper's high" -- a mental boost that comes from aiding someone else. Volunteering can reveal skills and strengths you didn't know you had, reinforcing your sense of purpose, value, and self-esteem.

To give just one example, I recently met Sandra Thandi Twala, a 47-year-old volunteer "granny" at the Othandweni Children's Home in the Soweto neighborhood of Johannesburg, South Africa. Twala says that working with disadvantaged children has changed her life: "It has opened my self-esteem more. I was starting to lose focus and balance. But since I was this granny I am a humble, understanding person and I don't want anybody to feel any pain." Twala's sentiments underscore the mutuality inherent in reaching out to someone else. The shared experience, the joy of connection, becomes its own reward, in which each person both gives and gains -- reinforcing the other's resilience, and their own.

Get to know your neighbors. It's all too easy in modern life to shut ourselves behind closed doors. For example, the Vancouver Foundation's 2012 Connections and Engagement survey revealed that 69 percent of respondents had only two or fewer close friends in their neighborhood. Relatedly, the study also found that one infour people found themselves alone more often then they wished. Yet, building ties of trust and caring in the places we call home helps make our communities strong -- and social cohesion has been correlated with better physical health. Neighbors looking out for one another fuels a virtuous cycle, so why not set it in motion? Even the smallest favors, like picking up a neighbor's mail while they're away, can have a meaningful impact.

Visit your grandparents. Older individuals are particularly susceptible to social isolation, as aging often coincides with diminished personal mobility and a shrinking of social networks. And demographic trends make clear that this is will be a growing challenge: By 2030, there are projected to be 72 million Americans aged 65 and older, roughly 20 percent of the population. Numerous studies reveal the impact of isolation on the health of the elderly. Lack of social contact is associated with maladies from high blood pressure to lung disease to depression. But, by the same token, social engagement can have a protective effect for older people -- slowing the onset of physical and cognitive decline, relative to seniors with lower levels of social activity. So visit your grandparents -- or make a point of reaching out to seniors in your community. You'll be glad you did.

Be a "buddy." Just as many sports and other activities involve the "buddy system," where people work in pairs with the understanding that each has a responsibility to the other, so too countering isolation is a reciprocal team sport. Each of us can take responsibility for reaching out to the person who feels invisible, for inviting the one who feels different to belong, for sitting beside the one who feels alone. Then that person has a buddy -- and it always works both ways. As Desmond Tutu once put it: "We think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another, whereas you are connected and what you do affects the whole world."

And don't wait to get started on these resolutions! There's no better time than today. Nobody can make it out here alone, but together, we can make a real difference.

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