Full text of Emma Seppälä on The Power & Science of Social Connection at TEDx Hayward May 2013 conference.
Listen to the MP3 Audio here: The Power & Science of Social Connection by Emma Seppälä @ TEDx
I’d like to start with a question for you: just think about how many people in your life you feel close enough to, to share a personal problem with? You can just think for yourself what that number is.
A representative national survey was done where this question was asked to hundreds of people across the United States. And what they found was – this was done in 2004 – what they found was that the mean number of close others that people have, that they feel close enough to share a personal problem with, is two. And the mode, which is the greatest number of people, said zero. That was over 25% of Americans who said zero. That’s one in four people that you meet everyday doesn’t feel that connection.
So what I’m going to share with you today, is the science behind social connection and the secret to how we can improve that in our lives.
So let’s talk about what happens when there’s no social connection, or low social connection in our lives. So what the data is showing is that people with low social connection have more anxiety, depression, it’s been linked to suicide and also to violence, so a lot of perpetrators of violence acts that we hear about in the news, are people who were severely isolated. It impacts us even at the cellular level where we find greater inflammation for people who are very lonely.
And when we take care of our health, we often think about going to the gym and eating a proper diet. We don’t think about social connection. But actually, low social connection is worst for us than smoking, than obesity, and than high blood pressure. I’m just going to show the importance that that has in our lives.
On the other hand, when social connection is present, a healthy level of social connection predicts greater psychological well-being, better physical health, increased immunity, faster recovery from disease, and even longevity. So if you’re highly socially connected, you feel connected to other people around you, you have a 50% increased chance of longevity.
In fact, we are wired for connection. Connection is something that’s intrinsically natural to us. Thanks to mirror neurons in our brain, we constantly resonate with other people, and what we mean by resonate, is that we are constantly mirroring what’s going on with others. So think about someone close to you: when they walk in the room, even before you’ve exchanged any words, you can tell – are they doing well? Did something wonderful happen in their life, or did something tragic happen?
What we do is, when we observe someone, internally, we’re mirroring them. And that’s at the basis of empathy. So when someone comes in and frowns for example, it activates the micro-muscles in our face, we’re frowning and we know that something is not right.
Same thing with smiling muscles. Just think about when you see someone walking on the street and tripping and falling. We immediately feel an impulse to, “Oh! That must have hurt,” it’s kind of like an intrinsic feeling of, “Wow, that must hurt.”
In fact, the pain activation that you see in the brain, is the same when you’re experiencing pain as when you’re observing someone else being hurt. So, there is this overlap between our own pain and seeing someone else’s pain. So, sometimes we think that we’re these isolated individuals, walking around, not connected to others, but it’s just not true. Even the way our brain is wired, we’re wired to connect, wired to feel empathy, wired to know what’s going on with someone else. We’re so connected at that level.
And actually, you might have noticed that when you walk down the hall and you smile at someone, and they don’t smile back, you feel – oh, you kind of feel like, oh man! But every time that happens, I think, “that’s okay,” because I just activated the micro-muscles in their face, chances are they’ll smile at the next person they see.
So we know that social connection brings all of these benefits, and lack thereof is a problem.
And we also know that there’s an increase in loneliness happening in the United States. The facts I shared with you in the beginning were for 2004, but earlier in 1985, there was a greater social network. So there’s a decline happening, people are living farther and farther away from one another. And the number one reason that people seek therapy today, is loneliness.
So given this fact, how can we increase social connection? Some people say: “Well, I’m an introvert. I’m a loner. I don’t feel comfortable with other people.” Or: “I’m so busy, I can’t have a social life.”
Another assumption is: “In order to connect with others, I need to make myself more attractive. I need to maybe be more successful, make more money, be thinner. I need to change myself, my appearance or my achievements in order to connect.”
But science says this is not so. And that’s the good news. Your feeling of social connection, the benefits of social connection, have nothing to do with the number of friends you have actually. You might have heard of the expression loneliness in a crowd. You can have a thousand friends, but if you don’t feel connected on the inside, you get none of the benefits.
The beauty about this is that the benefits are a tighter subjective feeling of connection to others. And what’s beautiful about that is that we don’t have control over our external environment. We can’t always change how many friends we have, we can’t always change how successful we are, how attractive we are. But one thing we do have a say over, is our internal state, our subjective state.
And what is the secret to increasing that social connection? Well, one thing that the data suggests is that compassion for others and compassion for self might be the answer to that.
Some people think: “Oh, compassion. I’m not a compassionate person.” Or they think: “We’re innately selfish people, and everyone, you know, is self interested.” That’s a belief.
But what does the data say? The data says that compassion is innate. It’s our first instinct. And we see this not only in human beings but in the animal kingdom. So let’s take rats for example. Rats are animals, that in general, we don’t have an extreme amount of respect for perhaps. A rat will go out of its way to help another rat who’s suffering, will actually pay a price, go over obstacles and make that happen.
Same as seen in primates. Primates will help when they see another in need. And the same is also true for two-year-olds. So in order to examine whether compassion is innate, researchers at the Max Planck Institute worked with two-year-olds — too young to have learned the rules of politeness — and they observed that in a room with an experimenter who needs help, who’s dropped something and is desperately trying to reach for it, two-year-olds will just get up and walk over there and help. Even after the experimenter has put all sorts of obstacles across the room, and that the babies have to crawl over and under to get you and help it’s a natural tendency.