People need other people whether we like it or not. Science has repeatedly shown this to be true. Social connection is a need, not a want. Even those of us who would consider ourselves introverts have to admit that, even though it may take more energy to get out there and participate, we almost always feel like it was worth it in the end.
The truth is that we are wired for companionship. Relationships are written into our genetics throughout our lives. Research has shown that babies who get a chance to bond to at least one person will thrive. Babies without social attachments have a higher likelihood of psychological and physical health problems as long as they live. Children who are nurtured and appropriately provided with social and consequential boundaries tend to do extremely well. The results of anything else are far less desirable.
Social interactions are not simple behavioral transactions between people who know and possibly love each other. There’s something much more scientific going on. A broad range of health outcomes, from heart health to mental acuity, seem to be somewhat related to our interactions with others. There’s a reason why single people don’t live as long. There’s a reason why even the occasional presence of a therapy animal in a nursing home extends lives.
It’s even more specific than that, when it comes to the neurological side of things. We receive prompt and plentiful neurochemical rewards for being involved with other people in a healthy way. Our brains reward us for being social in the hard currency of Dopamine, which is literally the best reward your hypothalamus can offer.
We’re not used to examining our relationships in a scientific way, but the consensus now seems to be that all of this friendly neurochemistry is meant to motivate us chemically to cooperate as a species. Where other types of creatures associate simply for mating purposes, most mammals tend to do a bit better than that; mainly (it is thought) because our young take a relatively long time to raise compared to, say, a spider or a salmon. Historically, the very survival of our species at one time depended on the interactions of small groups of people. It was only together that humans were able to survive harsh prehistoric conditions. Being social is no longer saving us from wolves and bears, but it is still a powerful determinant of life length.
But many of us still struggle to find the energy to get out there and do it. We have an endless amount of asocial toys to amuse ourselves with, but in the heart of us, these are never as rewarding as making and enjoying friends. It is critical to our mental and physical health to always have social relationships of some kind in our lives. It doesn’t mean that you must become a social butterfly. It doesn’t mean that you have compromise yourself.
What it does mean is that isolation is associated with almost every negative mental health outcome, from depression to suicide. One way to look at it is that your social regimen is every bit as important as the laps you’re running or the calories you’re counting.
This is especially true for those of us who know what it’s like to work on the road or overseas for long periods of time. The loneliness can be crushing, and the alternative may not seem attractive—investing in relationships that are in so many ways very temporary. But social relationships are not luxuries; they are nutrition. Disengagement can lead to further social isolation, the development of bad habits, perhaps even agoraphobia. We’re not built to be alone.