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How social connections save us

Feeling deeply connected to others puts us on a path to happiness and a healthy immune system. That’s right – having healthy social connections has been scientifically proven to  improve both our psychological well-being and our physical health.

“Healthy social connections” doesn’t mean having 500 Facebook friends, which can be fun but superficial.  What I’m referring to is deep, authentic relationships that make you feel supported and loved. 

Without deep connections with other people, we grow lonely.  And science tells us that loneliness can make us sick. In fact, it can be lethal.  Here’s how.

First, let’s be clear about what we mean by loneliness.  In this context, loneliness is not the dissatisfaction from a bad month with your lover or friend.  It’s not the realization that you only have two or three truly close friends. By loneliness, I mean the long-term condition of wanting and not having social intimacy, not feeling like you belong. Anywhere. 

Science demonstrates that the feeling of loneliness wreaks havoc on the body. A published study done at the University of California, Los Angeles, co-authored by Dr. Steve Cole, head of R&D at HopeLab, found that the most reliable predictor of death in HIV-positive gay men was whether or not he was “out,” or open, about his sexuality.  Why?

Think about what it feels like to be in the closet about something.  It is incredibly lonely.  You hide behind a false identity. You impose sharp limits on intimacy and live in constant terror of exposure.  At the biological level, stress hormones flood your body and your tissues swell up as your white blood cells swarm to protect you against assault. 

In the study, closeted men with HIV died an average of two to three years earlier than men who came out. In fact, the researchers found that the feeling of loneliness was more predictive of an earlier death than whether or not someone had support for maintaining his health. When AIDS-infected white blood cells were place in a soup of stress hormones, the virus replicated three to 10 times faster than it did in cells in a control condition.

What does this mean for all us? It shows us that when we feel connected and safe, our body feels safe. When our body doesn’t feel safe, we get sick.  This suggests another opportunity area for developers, in addition to the concept of purpose.  There are plenty of apps that allow us to casually meet and share with people, but far fewer that help us cultivate deep connections with others.

How might we use mobile to foster healthy connections between ourselves, even if it meant putting our phones down?

Tags: connection
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  • I think you are right on the money to ask how to craft spaces that can create deep connections in online interactions.

    We have created a multitude of technologies in the 'real world' for creating deep experiences with others through highly ritualized spaces with very clear boundaries and rules of social interaction. You see forms in school rooms, churches, monasteries, board rooms... We have alters and audiences, talking sticks and microphones, masks and robes, music and settings, Q and A. But I think we are just at the very begining of imagining how a computer or social network can hold space for deeper interpersonal interactions.

    Anonymity is clearly an important start. But it seems we sometimes think that is sufficient and don't look deeper at how the rest of our social interaction feels and what it invites. For example, 'likes', 'votes' and 'shares' that are almost a given in most interactions have implicit judgment. Unstructured comment boxes or forums invite feedback that can be extremely alienating and unsafe around personal and vulnerable issues.

    At Life Constellation, we are actively trying to understand how to create neutral ritualized spaces that allows sharing of personal stories in an atmosphere of respect and gratitude while removing any judgment based social features (comments, share, likes, votes, user profiles).

    We currently provide tools to remove personal information from personal writing (aliasing any identifying information), and templates where readers can craft personalized but highly constrained messages of gratitude and support.  

    As part of the articulation process of story sharing we use highly structured meta-data categorized in ways that are meaningful and unify people (shared subjective experiences) instead of divide people (judgment based categories - for example 'republican' and 'democrat') as part of their story searching and matching experience. This also gives no interface for people that have prejudices against others that may color their interaction.

    While not mobile (yet...), interactive shared 'game space' opens up all kinds of possibilities for replicating what already works in the real world while distributing it globally. But even there, I think we have no idea how far we can take things when a computer holds space. For instance, interacting through avatars already does amazing things at levelling social status so that everyone is treated the same without bias, which cannot be easily replicated in the real world.

    Taking it to the next level in terms of how the avatars are allowed to interact could invite amazing spaces for safe sharing. For example, they could interact silently through emotional/physical displays that are familiar and safe (like a bow or hand to the heart), drawing on rich traditions of silent story telling and performing arts.

    The great part is, creating spaces for these kinds of interactions can also give people a place to model and learn different ways to interact that they can take into their real world interactions.

    I see this as a really exciting space to imagine into! The sky is the limit!
    Great thread!

  • Here's a link to another good piece on how disconnected we can actually become in this ultra-connected world:  

  • One way might be to help people get around to regularly having "quality time" (e.g., phone conversations) with people they feel connected to, but find it hard to keep in touch with.  For example, a close family member and I used to end up going for many months without communicating.  Neither of us was happy about this, but just wishing it were different didn't solve it.  We tried a few approaches but the one that has really helped is to always agree on a date and time for our next call before finishing the current call.  We then reschedule it nearer the time if necessary.  An app could, for example, allow two (or more) people to mutually agree that they'd like to have quality conversation time together at some minimum interval, and then support them both in making this happen.

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