For all of 2017 I was on sabbatical. Since I didn’t go away like many of my colleagues do, I spent a lot of time at home in front of the computer. It was quite liberating, being able to work from home, get to snack or go for a walk whenever I wanted, and put off shaving until after a few days I looked like this:
When I did go into the office, I went in and out quickly, barely saying ‘hi’ to people for fear of getting stuck there for longer than I wanted or needed to be.
As time went on, I found it easier and easier to withdraw myself from seeing anyone during the day. By the afternoon I had finished the work I wanted to accomplish and had free time. While that was great at first, after a few days I began to get fidgety, glancing at the clock waiting until it was time for the rest of my family to come home. I didn’t quite get to the stage of LB Jeffries in Rear Window staring out the window at my neighbours but it did cross my mind. I soon realized that I was craving social contact at the same time I was trying to keep it away.
While having alone time is important and a good way to clear your thoughts and refresh, too much of it can be problematic. As humans we’re naturally social. Being around people gives us opportunity to share our stories and listen to theirs, rant about what’s bothering us or what’s making us happy. It’s also an opportunity to smile and laugh.
Smiling makes us feel better. It can raise our spirits and make our problems and worries seem smaller, if not go away altogether. There’s also science to back it up, and it doesn’t seem to matter if your smile occurs naturally or is not. Even a forced smile (created by holding chopsticks between the teeth) resulted in more positive feelings when completing a stressful task. As a result, some psychologists suggest that forcing a smile may be a good way to help manage stress.
Laughing has even more potential benefits. Laughter elicits a physiological response that likely results in the release of hormones called endorphins. Some people refer to these as the happy hormones, which act as pain suppressers and make you feel better. In a series of experiments, researchers demonstrated that laughing increased the pain threshold of the participants. Laughing also results in a cascade of events that leads to better function of the arteries which may be associated with reducing risk for heart disease. And if that isn’t enough to make you smile, laughter therapy has been shown to reduce anxiety in kids (and parents) in hospital and even reduce complications from diabetes.
Now there are many ways that can get us to smile and laugh, and you don’t need to be with people to make that happen. You could spend your time searching the Internet to get a good laugh out of watching the latest cute animal video like this one, but it’s not the same as actually being with people.
Spending time with people can make you happier and even hearing a familiar voice can lead to releases of oxytocin (the love hormone). Research is starting to emerge that compares different types of contact between people and the physiological responses. Children who talked to their mothers either in person or by phone following a stressor released oxytocin but this didn’t happen for the children who received a text message from their mother. It also appears that real face time contact is the best of all types as regular in-person contact is associated with lower risk for depression, while communication by phone, email or writing was not.
FaceTime is not the same as real face time. When we see people in person, you can pick up visual cues that can’t be done by phone or even through video. That smile or laugh you have is contagious through what’s called the facial feedback hypothesis in which we tend to mirror the actions of the people we’re interacting with. You’re also able to receive and provide physical contact which has numerous benefits like ensuring trust and feelings of belonging.
Once I realized I was missing out, I started to book lunches with friends and colleagues, as well as arranging work meetings at a local coffee shop. This gave me my daily dose of social interaction. For many people working on their own or at home, or who try to get their social fixes through technology, booking in social time may have to follow a process of consciously fitting it in like with exercise. Building your exercise and social routines together is a great way to bring together a sense of camaraderie and support.
Over the long term, having a healthy social life can be wonderful for your quality of life, well-being and even longevity. People who are socially isolated are more likely to suffer from chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart disease as well as premature death. Whereas having a strong social network is associated with a 50% reduction in premature death, which is similar to the benefits of quitting smoking and improving other risk factors.
In Sardinia (off of Italy), it’s common to see men living well into their 90s and some into their 100s. Despite having a laborious life, the men and women of Sardinia have a strong support network where people are always together with others. It is believed that this social support is a key reason for their extended lifespan.
The key to a strong social support network is having people you know who are around you that care about you, that you trust and enjoy engaging with. You don’t have to be going out and seeing family and friends all the time, and it doesn’t mean you have to have an extensive network of people you know or even that you have to live close to your family. It can be the family member or friend that can come help you out when needed. The neighbour who is available to look after your pet or water your plants if you go away. Someone who’ll be excited to hear or see you succeed, and be supportive when things don’t go as planned. If you’re sick, it’s someone who can go with you to the doctor or visit you in hospital.
It’s not necessarily important what people in your life do for you, so much as knowing that there are people you know who will do those things if needed. And in reverse, you being available for others, because helping others also makes us feel good.
For me, when I returned to work, I was welcomed warmly by my friends and colleagues, and I’m happy to be back, knowing that it’s making me healthier.