Social connection is a statin for the lonely heart

Prairie dogs live in cooperative communities called “towns” where they share food, burrow together, and protect each other. Illustration by Megan Stewart

“It takes a village to raise a child,” the old saying goes. Recently, the Surgeon General’s Advisory warned about the devastation of social isolation and loneliness; it seems our need for “villages” doesn’t stop with childhood.

One in two Americans reports feeling lonely. Some prefer solitude. But most of us aren’t polar bears, who prefer the company of a chunk of ice to that of another bear. Social connection sustains and enhances our mental, physical, cognitive, and financial health. It helps to forge healthier behavior.

“I’m on my own” can be very stressful. A 2017 study showed prolonged social isolation is as harmful as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. It’s more harmful than drinking 6 alcoholic drinks daily – and much, much more harmful than obesity or air pollution.

The harms include increased risks of heart attacks, strokes, depression, anxiety, dementia, impaired immunity – the list goes on.

On the other hand, improving social connection improves health outcomes. A 2010 study looking at over 300,000 participants found stronger social connections improve our odds of survival by 50%.

Isn’t it amazing, I’m thinking, how much my little writer’s group helps me live longer. With my group’s permission, I’ll share our story.

Every second Tuesday of the month, I meet a group of writers in Bay Village.

I met Phyllis, our leader, when I attended a fiction writer’s workshop sponsored by the Cuyahoga County Library on the far East Side. For a year, I tried a few writer’s groups which all fizzled. Some groups were too big, impersonal, and I rarely got a chance to present my writing; others were too small, and people didn’t show up.

Phyllis started a writer’s club on the West Side. And she had a few draws. We met at her house, a short drive from mine. She had a few committed writer friends, who are super nice. She has a big black dog, Rosebud, who shares her salt-and-pepper hair. Rosebud barks her head off when we get in, then for the next two hours, she lets me prop my feet on her chest.

We have a retired Bay High School English teacher. She corrects grammar patiently, gently. We have another English teacher, who’s also a street poet and jazz musician. We have a no-nonsense lawyer, who writes beautiful odes to relationships. Our most energetic member walks with a cane, her short stories are punky and fast-paced. The last to join is our most charismatic member, who manages rental properties, runs a catering business, and works as dominatrix.

I love fiction, but coming up with a story is a breech birth. I have one formula: every few pages, someone needs to die. My current story involves a drug-addled, ex-football player from Appalachia, who, by page 21, has found 3 dead bodies.

I doubt I’ll ever get published, but my group’s unwavering support keeps me going.

Dr. Murthy, the Surgeon General, says to treat our relationships as “a source of healing hiding in plain sight.”  

It takes a village to raise a child, but it takes multiple villages to sustain us.

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Volume 15, Issue 10, Posted 8:44 AM, 06.06.2023