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.
So what happens to adults? It’s the same in adults. So a recent study with an economic game paradigm in which participants were given a certain amount of money where they could either act fairly so they could share that money with the other participants, or they could keep it for themselves and hold it. When they were given only a few seconds to think about it, the first reaction response was to share.
Then if they were given a few more minutes to think about it, they might change their mind, but their first instinct is to share. And Dale Miller at Stanford University has also shown that people’s first instinct is to share for adults, but sometimes they stop themselves. Why? Because they think other people might think that they’re self-interested, because this is norm out there that we are all self-interested.
But our first instinct is actually to share and this has been true for millennia. Often times we attribute survival of the fittest as something that Charles Darwin said. In fact, it was something that Herbert Spencer said, and he had an agenda with it. His agenda was to justify social and racial hierarchy. But actually, as Dacher Keltner from UC Berkeley has pointed out, Darwin’s message could better be translated as ‘survival of the kindest, ‘ because compassion is what helped us survive over time.
And Robert Sapolsky at Stanford Medical School has shown some really interesting experiments about that. He observed baboons in Africa, and he saw that who are the ones that reproduce more. Well, guess what? The alpha males are out there fighting, or hogging the food. So that, leaves the nice guys behind, and they are with the ladies. They reproduce more. And actually, in one situation, the alpha male has hogged all this food that was in a human waste dump, and the food was infected. So all of a sudden, the alpha males have started dying of, and who was left was the really cooperative nice guy males. And in fact, that tribe of baboons thrived much more in this much cooperative atmosphere.
And actually, same is true for human beings. When you look at dating preferences for men and women, though men and women differ in certain things that they value highly in a partner, both value kindness as one of the highest things that they look for in a mate.
So compassion is something that is incredibly natural and innate to us actually. Of course, compassion brings that sense of social connection to focus on other, and the other thing that increases compassion is self-compassion, interestingly. We often think you know — we have to achieve, and we have to be self-critical, and push ourselves. But it’s been shown that when you do that, it actually is detrimental to your success, to your resilience.
But when you apply compassion to yourself, you’re more resilient in the face of challenge. You’re better able to succeed. So people think: “Oh, compassion. It’s this touchy-feely term, soft.” Actually, it’s a source of enormous strength, much more than we actually imagine.
So I want to share a story with you. I taught a similar lecture at Stanford to some students, and one of the students emailed me a couple of weeks later, and said that she had decided to implement compassion in her life.
So, she went back to her dorm, and there was one person in her dorm who everybody avoided. This person had a dark cloud over her head, always glared at everyone, and didn’t talk to anyone. The student was aware that this person was very socially isolated so she decided: “I’m going to smile at this person every time I see her. In worst case scenario, I activate her micro-muscles.”
So this is what she did. And she did that for several weeks, and every time she smiled, that woman glared at her. But she continued to smile.
About a month into this, she said the girl came up to her and said, “Thank you for seeing me.” It changed her life.
And for many of us, we don’t realize what one act of compassion can do. Not only it generates connection within us, not only it generates well-being, because it does; research shows that we’re happier when we give than when we receive. If you ask people to spend money on themselves or on someone else, they’re happier at the end of the day if they spend money on others. Just think about it. This is not the messages we’re getting from all of our marketing gurus out there who’re telling us to buy things in order to be happy, it’s actually in giving. And this has been shown in brain imaging studies as well.
The most beautiful fact of our compassion is that it’s incredibly contagious. Think about the time that you’ve seen someone helps someone else – it might have been a parent with a child, or you see someone helping someone across the street – and just think about the feeling it generates within you. It’s kind of a warm and fuzzy feeling. Sometimes we can be moved to tears. This is something Jonathan Haidt at the University of Virginia called ‘a state of elevation.’
What happens when there’s elevation? When you feel that elevation, you’re more likely to go and help others. And Nicholas Christakis at Harvard has shown that if one person acts fairly, it impacts three degrees of separation away from them. So if you’re a compassionate person in your life, your wives, brothers, neighbors, are also going to be more compassionate.
Interestingly, the same is true with happiness. We often think: “Why I should take care of my happiness? Maybe it’s self-centered.” No! When you’re happy, it’s the same thing. And that’s how we create culture, and compassion leads to happiness. Just think about it.
When you have compassion in your life, you feel connected, you feel all the benefits of connection, you’re benefited. Everyone who watches you, everyone who lives with you, everyone who has the beautiful gift of having you in their life also feels impacted and feels good, and they become more compassionate.
And then whoever you touch, whoever you help in your life, also benefits. And that’s how you create culture. That’s how you create a culture of compassion, and that I believe is an idea worth spreading.