We humans are social animals. Our minds and bodies are wired to socialize for good reason. As a species, we use our socialization to solve problems, find safety, and survive. Every now and then, of course, we need a break from the social pack, and to retreat to a more quiet state of solitude, but what happens when that solitude becomes isolation?
Sometimes we feel alone, even in a crowded room. Sometimes we have no choice in the feelings, and other times, we enjoy being alone, and choose to separate ourselves from others. It may start with a change in our lives, like moving to a new area, or off to college. It could be that people have disappointed us, and we feel the need to protect ourselves from the feelings of pain associated with the loss of someone from whom we expected more, or that made us feel unwanted or unloved. Maybe we just feel socially inadequate, or ill at ease with others.
Regardless of how it starts or what perpetuates isolation, it is important that we understand the relevance of being socially connected to others. We connect to others on different levels. For some, this connection can be a strong bond, and for others it may be small talk with strangers, but in all cases, we are increasing our ability to survive, as well as securing our human instinct. It is important that we human animals consider the reasons that socialization is built into our system. We need each other to survive, and problem solve.
Dying To Be Social
In 2006, researchers reviewed data gathered from over two decades and found that Americans were less and less connected socially. The average network had decreased by about a third from 1985 to 2004. With the changes in technology from smart phones, and tablets, the average person is far less likely to engage in person to person contact as they were even in 2004. You can see this when you observe most restaurants and see families of people all engaged in their personal devices. Even in a family unit, we seem to be losing our socialization, and that is alarming considering how damaging isolation can be to individuals.
A 2013 study found that social isolation is associated with a shortened life. The study, led by Andrew Steptoe, followed 6500 men and women 52 and older, and measured the consequences of loneliness and isolation on health. While both can affect well-being, the researchers found that isolation, independent of loneliness, has 1.26-fold increase in death. One of the interesting things that this study highlights is that while we may feel lonely, any kind of social interaction, even as small as chit-chat with a stranger can help our health. It is not necessarily those strong bonds of close relationships. It also points out that even those who are content in their solitude need the contact of others to be healthy. Some of the reasons that may contribute to isolation’s effects on older adults are that there is no one to notice when they are declining, and they do not get the help they need, whether it be physically, or emotionally.
Social Media Doesn’t Count
Those who prefer to avoid the physical social contact may be tempted to use social networking as surrogate social contact, but that is not a good choice for those who like to be alone. Social networks may add to the problem of social isolation by creating negative feelings toward others. German research has found that social sites, specifically Facebook in this study, make people feel lonelier due to envy. The reader of a social update may feel that others have more enjoyment in life, and have better social opportunities than themselves. Of the things that frustrated users in the study, 29.6 % felt envy, or social upward comparison. Another 10.4% felt loneliness, and 19.5% felt a lack of attention due to lack of comments, likes, and feedback. The areas in which envy was produced were travel and leisure, social interactions with others, love, family, and relationship success. Interestingly, this research was specific to passive users. For more about social media, read Therapy: A Connection with the Interconnected.
How Does Therapy Help?
Therapy can help determine the emotional and psychological reasons for the need to isolate, as well as give support and help to build a social support network. When we find it hard to make friends, or that social interactions are just too much for us, a therapist can offer tools that allow us to cope with the situation. If you find yourself feeling lonely, angry, or critical of others, or have no feelings of being part of a group there is someone who can not only listen, but equip you with the tools to help you out of feeling isolated.
 McPherson, M., Smith-Lovin, L., & Brashears, M. E. (2006). Social isolation in america: Changes in core discussion networks over two decades. American Sociological Review, 71(3), 353-375. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/218830661?accountid=3358
 Steptoe, A., Shankar, A., Demakakos, P., & Wardle, J. (2013). Social isolation, loneliness, and all-cause mortality in older men and women. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 110(15), 5797. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/1326426096?accountid=3358
 Krasnova, H., & Et al (2013). Envy on Facebook: A Hidden Threat to Users’ Life Satisfaction? Institute of Information System. Retrieved from http://warhol.wiwi.hu-berlin.de/~hkrasnova/Ongoing_Research_files/WI%202013%20Final%20Submission%20Krasnova.pdf