What could possibly have such a destructive impact on our bodies and minds?
While it might sound incredible that something so simple and common could have such a profound effect on us, researchers have found that what we’ve long felt instinctively––that loneliness is bad for us––is absolutely true.
The sad news is that it’s increasingly common. Changes in the way we’re living, including our modern Western lifestyle, the increase in people moving away from their families and friend groups in search of jobs or because of marriage, the rise in the use of personal technology, and even the way we’re working has led to an increase in people living, feeling, and spending time alone.
And, we’re seeing the impact: over a third of Americans said they felt lonely at least once a week in a survey conducted for the American Osteopathic Association.
What’s worse, our digital lives are now often very different from our physical, local lives. This can sometimes mean that you feel like a part of a tribe virtually but in your day to day, real life, you’re not interacting with people who support your decisions, the path you are on, and the person you want to become. When you don’t feel that those in life “get you” or that they are able to nourish and cherish your soul, isolation can begin to take root––sometimes even driving you to immerse yourself further into your online reality, leading to increased feelings of physical loneliness and a self-perpetuating cycle.
The Good News? We Know One Sure-Fire Way to Fix It.
As a species, we developed (for the most part) in close-knit groups, what you might think of as a “tribe” today. And while our society has changed, our basic needs haven’t: we still function best when we’re surrounded by our own small social circles of supportive others.
In fact, being regularly connected with other people is not only associated with well-managed stress levels, a healthy immune response, changes in the way you feel pain, and good mental health, it also tends to correlate with making healthier choices, like not smoking, moderating your intake of food and alcohol, and even taking medications appropriately.2
Of course, spending time around other people is closely connected with having a more diverse and balanced gut microbiome, which is itself associated with positive effects on everything from your skin to the quality of your sleep.3,4
And just in case you’re still on the fence about connection, researchers working on a groundbreaking study on health and longevity recently announced their findings. What’s the number one factor that indicates whether someone is likely to live a long, happy, healthy life? The quality of their relationships.
While even just a few decades ago many of us would have had a built-in social circle in our communities, these days you usually have to make more of a conscious choice to stay connected with your family and build a supportive network of caring friends.
And that means that as much as you might want to experience the benefits of a tribe, you might find yourself coming up against several barriers. Here’s how to combat them and find those who nourish your soul and support your life.
Approach This Process Mindfully
It’s said that you act like a composite of the five people you spend the most time with, so don’t just fall into whichever social circle happens to form around you. Instead, approach this process just as mindfully as you would other things you do for your health.
Start by thinking about the kind of people you want in your life in general. Really visualize them; you might even want to write down your thoughts in a journal so you can look back over them as you’re building your community.
If you’re getting stuck, these are the types of people you might want to think about including in your life. Look for someone who:
• Challenges you to grow.
• Inspires you to be your best self.
• Supports and loves you through thick and thin.
• Shares your interests, desires, and goals.
• Laughs with you and encourages your joy.
Once you’re clear on who you really need in your ideal tribe, here are some approaches to help you stay in sync with your circle:
Embrace the concept of becoming “unbusy.”
This is so common, and to be fair, many of us are working longer and more hours than ever before. But don’t let feeling like you’re too busy get in the way of maintaining a small circle of people you can count on. Think of it like any other thing you do for your health: you make it a priority and put it into your schedule. Even doing something as small as spending a little extra time in a local coffeeshop or making small talk with someone before class starts at the gym can lay the groundwork for a relationship later on.
One easy step: Think about a place where you really like to spend time. Maybe it’s your local farmer’s market, your library, or even a place where you volunteer! Whatever it is for you, commit to getting to know one person there a little better this week.
If you’re naturally more inclined to spend time by yourself, it might take a little bit of extra effort to talk with others and find authentic connections, but it’s well worth it. One big tip for improving connections with the people around you is to try disconnecting from your phone or portable device. The truth of the matter is that the world around us used to be “out there” where we were more likely to converse and connect with others and build closer networks. But, our devices bring work and the world front and center, often leaving us missing out on interactions happening just beyond our screens.
So, take an extended break from your phone, leave your headphones at home, and try to be present in your physical world. Go out on a limb and make eye contact with people and simply say, “hello.” So many of us are actively on the hunt for meaningful connection and putting yourself out there in this small way can help attract your ideal community right to you.
As well, look for situations that are low-pressure, like local events where you can naturally integrate yourself in the crowd without having to feel expected to constantly talk to people. Or try tagging along with someone who already has an established friend group––that way you’ve already got your in, and you don’t have to worry about meeting people cold.
One easy step: Find an event in your area where you’re pretty sure to run into like-minded people. If you’re not sure where to start, try searching through Facebook groups, either by area or by interest––you might be surprised just how many people live near you that you’d be interested in getting to know!
Find time to nurture your family ties.
Sometimes when you’re feeling lonely or isolated, it’s easy to forget about the like-minded family (and friends who feel like family) you’ve already got. Feeling more connected can be as simple as picking up the phone to invite someone out for lunch, or even sending a random “thinking of you” card. Even better, consider coming up with regular events for your group to do together, like going for a monthly hike, playing on a trivia team, or taking part in a brunch club. Doing things together regularly can help you avoid the “What do you want to do? I don’t know, what do you want to do?” purgatory of planning, not to mention give you lots of chances to build your relationships.
One easy step: Write down three people in your family or friend group that you want to connect with, and over the next three weeks, connect with each of them. It can be something as simple as a text message, or as elaborate as a spa day––your choice.
Don’t Forget About the Tribe in Your Gut Microbiome!
It might sound a bit off the wall, but the balance of bacteria in your gut can actually have an effect on your network. Having a good balance in this all-important ecosystem can smooth your path as you focus on developing your social circle: a happy tribe of bacteria in your gut is associated with everything from a better mood to a little extra zing in your energy levels.
The simple truth is, it’s easier to go out, make friends, and feel up to spending time with your social circle when you’re feeling good, and as more and more research shows, so much of the foundation of feeling good comes from the gut.6 So don’t only focus on your outside tribe––give some love to your internal one too. Better yet, combine your efforts! There are lots of social-friendly ways to support your gut bacteria, including spending time outdoors, having physical contact with other people, and eating gut-friendly foods together.
In the end, your social circle is going to be just as individual as your gut microbiome; there’s no set group of people to surround yourself with. But then again, that’s what makes it interesting and unique to you.
And don’t forget, one of the best ways to create a tribe is to be a tribe member yourself! As the saying goes, if you want to be interesting, be interested. While it’s easy to unintentionally isolate yourself through work, technology, or simply a busy schedule, with a little time and effort, you can create a group of people around you that will see you for the incredible person that you are––and give you great health benefits too.
1. Holt-Lunstad, J., Smith, T.B., Baker, M., Harris, T., Stephenson, H. 2015. Loneliness and Social Isolation as Risk Factors for Mortality. Perspectives on Psychological Science 10(2). doi: 10.1177/1745691614568352
2. House, J.S., Landis, K.R., Umberson, D. 1988. Social Relationships and Health Science 241(4865) doi:
3. Bowe, W.P., Logan, A.C. (2011). Acne Vulgaris, Probiotics and the Gut-Brain-Skin Axis - Back to the Future? Gut Pathogens, 3(1). doi:10.1186/1757-4749-3-1
4. Desbonnet, L., Garrett, L., Clarke, G., Bienenstock, J., & Dinan, T. G. (2008). The probiotic Bifidobacteria infantis: An assessment of potential antidepressant properties in the rat. Journal of Psychiatric Research, 43(2), 164-174.
5. Austenfeld, J.L., Stanton, A.L. 2004. Coping Through Emotional Approach: A New Look at Emotion, Coping, and Health-Related Outcomes. Journal of Personality 72(6). doi: 10.1111/j.1467-6494.2004.00299.x
6. Dinan, T. G., & Cryan, J. F. (2012). Regulation of the stress response by the gut microbiota: Implications for psychoneuroendocrinology. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 37(9), 1369-1378.
Rachel Allen is a writer at Hyperbiotics who's absolutely obsessed with learning about how our bodies work. She's fascinated by the latest research on bacteria and the role they play in health, and loves to help others learn about how probiotics can help the body get back in balance. For more ideas on how you can benefit from the power of probiotics and live healthier days, be sure to subscribe to our newsletter. To learn more about how a healthy microbiome can enrich your life, subscribe to our newsletter.