One day after she delivered her TedxBYU talk on the importance of social relationships, Julianne Holt-Lunstad, professor of psychology and neuroscience at BYU, found out her father was hospitalized with a terminal condition. She dropped her professional work to spend every day with him before he died two and a half weeks later.
Then her mother passed away.
“I lost both of my parents within two and a half weeks. But I had that incredible time with them before they passed that I’ll treasure forever,” Holt-Lunstad says, becoming emotional. “Really, the most important things in our life are our relationships.”
Holt-Lunstad’s extensive research focuses on the long-term health effects of social connection. Her professional portfolio includes providing expert testimony in a U.S. Congressional hearing, advising the U.S. Surgeon General in the Emotional Well-Being in America Initiative, and serving as a scientific advisor for the Australian Coalition to End Loneliness.
Andy Proctor, a member of the TedxBYU curation committee, said Holt-Lunstad was chosen as a speaker because of her significant contribution to health and psychological sciences as well as the relevance of her message. “Her idea that social connection is one of the most important things we can do for our health is novel and the committee believed deeply it was an idea worth spreading,” Proctor says.
In her talk, Holt-Lunstad says that a lack of social connection poses a health risk similar to smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day.
“It’s time to prioritize our relationships like our life depends on it — because it does,” she says.
Holt-Lunstad began her research by looking at the effects of stress on health. She found that when experiencing the same levels of stress, blood pressure spikes were lower among people with supportive relationships, but more exaggerated in people with few supportive relationships. Expanding their research, she and her colleagues analyzed data from over 300,000 people worldwide and found that those with social connections increased their chance of living longer by 50%. On the other hand, the likelihood of death is increased 26% by being lonely, 29% by social isolation, and 32% by living alone.
Holt-Lunstad points to several ways we can improve our social connections.
1. Make time for relationships
Although making time for relationships can be challenging, there is no substitute for the benefits everyone gains from positive social relationships. They are as important to health as diet and exercise.
2. Discover your preferences
And just like diet and exercise, individual preferences for social interaction varies. People should find the type of social interaction that works best for them, whether that looks like informal gatherings or planned social activities, and whether it’s in large groups or more intimate settings.
3. Make the first move
Loneliness can be a vulnerable, stigmatizing feeling. And those feelings can make it difficult to make the first move when trying to build social relationships. But Holt-Lunstad says that feeling is normal and can be overcome. “One really empowering way to break the ice is to look for others who might need help or who might need a friend.”
4. Serve others
One of the best ways we can help ourselves is by helping others. Holt-Lunstad shared, “There is significant research that shows that providing support to others or doing small acts of kindness for others actually significantly reduces our own loneliness and increases a sense of social bonding between you and the other person. That’s something any one of us can do.”
Holt-Lunstad is currently working with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Administration for Community Living (ACL) to create a national clearinghouse for interventions to address loneliness and social isolation. She is also working with the Gravity Project to make recommendations for national standards for representing social isolation in electronic health records, and serving as the scientific chair of the Foundation for Social Connection and the Coalition to End Social Isolation and Loneliness.