Chapter 5: Staying socially connected

Social connections play an important role in our overall health and well-being. In this chapter, we’ll explore how feelings of isolation and loneliness can affect your mood and health. We discuss ways to build and maintain healthy social connections.

The effects of loneliness and social isolation

Loneliness is when people feel alone or unwanted, and it’s more common than you might think. About half (49%) of participants in Manulife’s Wellness Report in 2020, 2021, and 2023 reported feelings of loneliness.1 And, more than 1 in 10 people in Canada say they are always or often lonely, according to the 2021 Canadian Social Survey.2

Social isolation is like loneliness. Isolation happens when people have few contacts in their lives with whom to talk, do things, or interact.

Anyone can feel lonely and experience isolation, but there’s a higher risk when people live alone, are divorced, have a chronic illness, or when experiencing a major life change including retirement, or the death of a loved one.3

Humans are naturally social creatures, and so the long-term consequences of chronic social isolation and loneliness can have major impacts on our well-being. For example, studies have found that chronic social isolation can cause changes in both brain function and brain structure – including a reduction in the volume in the areas of the brain associated with social cognition.4

Other negative health outcomes include an increased risk of depression, anxiety, and cognitive decline. Being socially isolated has also been linked to a higher risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke, and premature death.5

“The human need for social connection is fundamental, and when that need is not met, it can have a significant impact on both physical and mental health,” says Dr. Steve Pomedli, with Cleveland Clinic Canada. “That's why it can be so important to seek out, build and strengthen social connections, including at different stages in our lives and when face challenging life transitions.”

Big question: How do I build social connections?

Here are some ways, developed in collaboration with Cleveland Clinic Canada, to build and maintain your social connections:

  • Join a club or group: Joining a club or group with individuals who share your interests is a way to meet new people and expand your circle of friends and acquaintances. Whether you enjoy hiking, reading, or playing chess, there’s a group out there suited for you.
  • Volunteer: Volunteering is a rewarding way to give back to your community. It can help you feel good about yourself by doing something positive and valuable while also building social connections.
  • Attend social events: Attending social events such as parties, concerts, and festivals is another fun way to meet people. Even if you feel nervous or uncomfortable in social situations, try to step a little out of your comfort zone and attend events that interest you.
  • Reach out to old friends: Reconnecting with former friends or acquaintances can be an excellent way to rekindle social connections that already exist. Reach out to someone you haven't spoken to in a while and suggest meeting up for coffee or lunch.
  • Use social media: Online social networks can be a great way to connect with new friends or stay in touch with existing friends and family members, especially those who live far away. Consider joining online groups or communities related to your interests.

Despite the benefits of building social connections, many people face challenges when trying to do so. Some common challenges include anxiety or lower confidence in social situations. If you’re struggling to build social connections, consider seeking support from a health coach, a therapist, or joining a support group.

Getting support – Manulife benefits coverage

If you’re struggling with stress, reach out for support. Your Manulife benefits plan might offer resources to help you manage stress, including virtual health coaching, counselling, and other services. To learn about the programs available to you, visit your benefits plan website or speak with your plan administrator – the person at work who’s responsible for your health benefits program.

 Technology and social connectedness

Technology has changed the way we connect with others. While technology can have both positive and negative aspects, it can be an excellent tool for building and maintaining social connections.

The positive side of using technology for social connections includes:

  • Connecting with people from all over the world,
  • Staying in touch with friends and family members, even those who live far away,
  • Options to join online communities and groups related to your interests, and
  • Beginning to overcome social anxiety or lack of confidence by building deeper connections online.

Some negative aspects of using technology for social connections include the potential for:

  • Cyberbullying and online harassment,
  • Overuse of technology,
  • Connecting self-worth to an online presence or profile, and
  • Replacing important face-to-face interactions with online interactions.6

“It's important to use technology mindfully and in moderation, as excessive use can worsen feelings of loneliness and disconnection,” says Lindsay Bell, a Workplace Well-being Consultant at Manulife. “By finding a balance between in-person and virtual social connections, individuals can maximize the benefits of technology while avoiding the negative consequences of social isolation.”