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How social connection benefits our minds and our bodies

With Professor Catherine Haslam, Meg, Vivien & Zach

Season 4 - Episode 3

28 Nov 2022
Podcast 23:25
Catherine Haslam smiling, wearing a white and blue top and glasse

But why are today’s young people known as “the loneliest generation” and what can we do about it?

Every Wednesday evening Vivien, Zach and Meg meet at a primary school in Melbourne’s northern suburbs. They set up the chairs, put the kettle on and distribute the sheets of music they’ll be singing from that night.  

They’re part of a community choir, where singers from all walks of life gather to rehearse - no auditions necessary. Anyone is welcome, and that’s the point. It’s a place where people can come to make friends, socialise and connect with one another.   

Even in this age of ultra-connectivity, young people have become the loneliest generation with far-reaching implications for their physical and mental wellbeing.  

Director of Social Identity and Groups Network at the University of Queensland, Professor Catherine Haslam, unpacks why we feel lonely and what we can do about it. 

  • Transcript

    Vivien  00:10

    We moved to Kinglake after I retired from, both of us retired from paid work from RMIT TAFE libraries, George my partner’s, a librarian and a writer. We got involved with everything up there. When we lost the house, we moved back to my house in Preston. I had no people, had no networks because I'd been gone for four years. And then I saw, I was thinking, oh, I'm a bit lonely and I feel a bit disconnected.


    Sandro Demaio  00:39

    This is Vivien. She joined the ARCapella community choir in 2009. And, it's changed her life.


    Vivien  00:45

    I had sung in choirs before we went to Kinglake, I sang with the Ashton Smith singers, but I needed people. And I love to sing. So, I saw the ad in the local paper, the Preston Leader, and came in for Christmas carols, which I've always loved. And I've been here since November 2009.


    Background chatter 1:04

    You're memorising the next verse aren’t you? 


    Vivien 1:08

    Well, it's the people and the music. And it also gives you such a feel good, like an endorphin rush. The people in the choir are marvellous, all ages, and from all kinds of backgrounds. If you wanted to populate another planet, you could send this choir and a bunch of tradies to build stuff. You've got everything you need. We've got teachers, nurses, biologists, researchers, writers, we've got everybody.


    Meg  01:36

    Hi, I'm Meg and I joined the choir back in 2009. I actually found a postcard at a cafe, which was advertising the choir. When I told my friends, I joined a choir, their reaction, from my friends and family was, ‘what? You don't know how to sing’. Thanks, guys. There's been a flow of younger people over the years. And in fact, just today, I drove past the street, where a very young woman she would have only been 17, came to our choir for about a year and I used to pick her up she didn't drive. With the young people, mostly over that time, they've come, you know, for a year, maybe, maybe two. And, you know, they've got a lot of stuff going on in their life and they're trying new things. And it really, it gives a bit of spark to the feeling in the in the choir, especially when the younger ones come and stay and put in and perform with this and, and really enjoy it.


    Zach  02:50

    Hi, my name is Zack. I joined the choir group around three weeks ago.


    Sandro Demaio  02:53

    Zach is the youngest choir member. He's 19.


    Zach  02:57

    There’s a couple of things I get out of the choir group. I get social interaction every week, on weekly basis, over here at Sacred Heart. And I also get to learn a new skill. It's great.


    Sandro Demaio  03:19

    Zach, Meg, and Vivien all came to ARCapella community choir at very different points in their lives. And this shared activity is more than just a nice way to spend a Wednesday evening, it's actually really good for their health. That's because activities like this are the antidote to a somewhat hidden issue. And that's loneliness. It's tangled up in so many mental and physical health concerns, but it doesn't have to be. I'm Dr. Sandro Demaio. And this is in good health. ARCapella connects people from multiple generations every week. But, one generation is feeling the sting of loneliness more than others, and that’s Zach’s generation, young people. Professor Catherine Haslam is a clinical psychologist, a lecturer, and the director of the social identity and groups network at the University of Queensland.


    Sandro Demaio 4:08

    Cath, I've heard that young people today are the loneliest generation. Is this true?


    Cathrine Haslam  04:13

    The evidence is certainly pointing to the fact that young people are experiencing the greatest levels of loneliness across age groups. So, what we know is that, it isn't just that young people are lonely. We know about one in four Australians are lonely, but it's higher in young people,, of like the 18- to 25-year-old group. So here we're seeing one in three young people being lonely. By and large, young people are certainly experiencing the greatest levels of loneliness. You know, Australia is no different to other countries. You see the same levels in the UK, in the US, of loneliness being reported and greater levels of loneliness being reported in young people.


    Sandro Demaio 04:58

    That's just heartbreaking.


    Cathrine Haslam  04:59

    It is heartbreaking.


    Sandro Demaio  05:00

    Is that different from pre... like, has it increased over time or have the youngest in society always been the loneliest?


    Cathrine Haslam  05:08

    Look, I think that we don't have enough data that speaks across generations, because we've only been sort of monitoring across age groups, and getting sufficient data across those age groups more recently. I think that loneliness has always been there. I think that societal changes are probably making things harder. Reducing, changing opportunities that young people have in ways that didn't exist previously. So, you know, trying to get into the housing market to move out of home, to all of those other changes that people are actually experiencing,


    Sandro Demaio  05:50

    Yeah, finding a job, navigating all of the economic and social challenges. Yeah.


    Cathrine Haslam  05:56

    I think they're a bit harder. I think that, so I suspect that there have been increases with societal changes, and those changing opportunities that young people are actually experiencing.


    Sandro Demaio  06:07

    So young people experienced loneliness in such significant numbers. Why is this?


    Cathrine Haslam  06:13

    One of the things that we do know about loneliness is that, a trigger for it is life changes, and whether those life changes are positive or negative. And young people are actually going through that transition into adulthood. So, the sorts of things that they experience are things like leaving school, starting a range of new jobs, to develop that career, intimate relationships, kind of sort of developing, some leave home, some start uni, all of these life changes are actually a part of our identity development. And these life changes have two consequences. First, it creates some uncertainty in our lives. And uncertainty, that not knowing, that can throw us. And the second thing is that when we experience these life changes, we experience relationship changes. So, we have a little bit of a social upheaval during that period of time. So life changes, alter who we relate to, who we see, how we engage with people. And it's those sorts of upheavals that also make for quite a difficult time as well. So these sorts of triggers, whether they're good or bad, can create uncertainty. And it's the uncertainty and the social upheaval that actually gets in the way.


    Sandro Demaio  07:29

    That's interesting. So, it's the combination of the change in our lives, but also the change in our social circles, and the connections in our lives that are impacting I mean, do we under have an understanding of whether one has more of an impact than the other?


    Cathrine Haslam  07:45

    Look, I think that both of these are associated, and it's hard to kind of tease them apart, because life changes are going to bring about all of those sorts of social changes. So, I do think that they're related and hard, and hard to tease apart. So I wouldn't turn around and say one is more important than the other, I would say that both of them have an impact. And I really, I mean, a lot of our work focuses very much on the idea that these are identity changing relationships. And it's, it's the identity changes that are really pretty central to the success of those transitions. So, if we lose important relationships along the way, then what happens is that we lose a number of those supports, the people who are building us up, the people who are actually sort of trying to support us in periods of change. And sometimes those periods of change can be pretty challenging. So, if we lose those connections, then we lose those supports and resources that our relationships provide us.


    Sandro Demaio  08:43

    When you say identity changes. What, what does that mean?


    Cathrine Haslam  08:47

    So when we think about identity, a lot of us actually think about identity as something that's unique about us as individuals. So, we think of identity as being unique. You Sandro, I Cath, these are sort of unique aspect, we're unique individuals. But a large part of our identity is also informed by the things that we share with other people, the groups that we belong to, whether they're our family and friendship groups, our work and professional groups, our community and interest groups, and so on. And so, these groups that are part of our lives actually get under our skin to become part of us. And when they become part of us, they actually,, part of our social self, what we refer to as our social identity, they actually influence the way we think and feel what we say and what we do in different situations. So there is that unique element of us, as part of our identity, what makes you and I unique as individuals, but there's also that part of our identity that we share with other people. So that social self is just as important. And if we trek back to what we were talking about just a moment ago in terms of life changes and relationship upheavals, during the transition to adulthood. Think about those groups and relationships as forming and being pretty integral to our identity. So if we lose some of those, you can get a sense of how much that impacts on our lives going forward.


    Vivien  10:17

    I've made some friends I see outside the choir, and some that I'm just looking forward to seeing each week. And it's just lovely. Yeah. And then we do some things at the end of the year, social occasions, we sing in the Ivanhoe Boulevard, we have a meal in a bar beforehand and stun them all by standing up and seeing carols, it's just lovely, it's just a lovely feeling.


    Sandro Demaio  10:43

    And are some types of relationships more powerful or protective, than others, I'm thinking sort of partner, family, friends, as some more predictive or protective, in times of change, then, then other forms of relationships?


    Cathrine Haslam  11:00

    Look I think all relationships matter. So, our one-on-one ties, the the intimate relationships we have, the relationships that we have with our best friends, a confidant, these are just as important as our group-based relationships. And I think that I mean, a lot of the work that we do is focusing very much on those group-based relationships. Because in a sense, those relationships were the ones, tend to be the ones that we that we ignore, that we take for granted, in a sense. So it's not that one is more important than the other, it's that they give us different things. And they build us up in slightly different ways. And those group-based relationships, as I was saying earlier on are really important, because they're building up our identity, they're building up our sense of who we are, and where we fit into the world.

    So a way I like to think about it is thinking about, you know, how do we, you know, we live out, we live our lives out through, through the groups that we're part of. I learn about my morals, the things that matter to me, what I believe in, my values, from the people that I relate to, I learned that from my family, I've learned about my professional values through the professional groups that I'm actually associated with. So, we we get these different resources and different things from the, from the different relationships that we have with people. So I wouldn't say one is more important than the other, I would say we need both. And we need a good balance of both.

    You know, some of our research has actually really highlighted that the people who have the greatest resilience, the people who develop more strongly in terms of their identity in terms of their comfort in terms of managing and navigating transitions, are people who are well connected. So it isn't just about one particular relationship. It's about multiple relationships.


    Sandro Demaio  12:41

    When we think about connections these days, you can't help but think about social media and digital. 


    Cathrine Haslam 12:48



    Sandro Demaio 12:49

    So what role does social media play in all of this, good and or bad?


    Cathrine Haslam  12:53

    I think the evidence here is pretty mixed. So I do think that social media, when it's a positive source of influence, when it boosts you, that certainly can be helpful in particularly in situations where, you know, you've moved cities. And so you can't necessarily touch base face to face in the same way that you might have when you were living in the same town. And the same goes for when you sort of move overseas.

    We also know that in the clinical health space, people who experience significant social anxiety, often find it really a hard step to take, to just go out there and join in person groups, they like a little bit of, you know, the trying to engage virtually in some way, whether it's through different forms of social media, or whether it's through online chats, and zooms, that can feel like a stepping stone towards in person, which can be a little bit challenging for people who've felt a bit isolated and disconnected for some time. But you're definitely right. I mean, social media isn't always positive.

    We, all of us, I think, have seen situations and have heard situations where people have been bullied, where they've been put down. And this has been something that's been an ongoing issue. Now we can see that in in person relationships, too. But you tend to see that a little bit more in online and social media interactions, because they're just that little bit more distant. There, you know, there's a little bit more anonymity associated with it.


    Sandro Demaio  14:22

    So, is there an evolutionary benefit to loneliness? Like, why are we wired to feel lonely?


    Cathrine Haslam  14:28

    I see loneliness as a signal that our relationships aren't cutting it, that they're not meeting our needs that can be useful to us. Because if, if it's highlighting something that's not working, then it's giving us a signal that there's something that we need to do about it, and something that we should be able to do about it to change. And that's the thing that I think is really sad, I suppose in the context of loneliness is that this is something that can be changed. If we target it and target it in the right. If we talk to people in the right way, if we help people to recognise it.


    Sandro Demaio  15:05

    And what about the opposite? What are the long-term effects of. of loneliness of not having those connections? What does it do to our health?


    Cathrine Haslam  15:13

    Well, it actually undermines our health quite dramatically. So, there's now a number of significant meta analyses that are out there that what the research is actually showing us is that people who are chronically lonely, the effects of that on health are about the same as smoking, and social disconnection and loneliness is worse for your life expectancy than physical inactivity, than poor diet, then alcohol misuse. So, there's researchers who've actually tried to have a look at the impact of all of these different factors, standard health behaviours that we know, impact on health, and don't get me wrong, all of those factors impact on health. So it's not that you should go out there and be socially connected and forget about managing your health. All of these factors matter, but these meta analyses or research studies are really just highlighting, just how vital our connections are. And we ignore them at our peril.


    Sandro Demaio  16:04

    Can our social identity or our connections, can they be a force for good? Can we use them in treating those same chronic conditions or reducing our risk?


    Cathrine Haslam  16:14

    Look, I think that when our social self, the groups that form our social self are a positive source of influence, absolutely. We've seen evidence that supports, reduces mental ill health. In older adults, we've actually seen effects on reducing cognitive decline, increasing performance, concentration, attention, we've also seen some effects on memory. So yes, they can actually be a source for good, but groups can also bring us down. So, where there are groups that are a negative influence on our lives, they might cause us to not engage in exercise, eat unhealthily. When we're around them, they might also put us down, where they are some of these challenging relationships, that can actually undermine health. And we certainly have seen evidence associated with that, too. It's about knowing.

    So the reason why you want to really understand these social networks and the dynamics around those networks in a health context, is that you're only getting part of the picture if you're just targeting the particular health problem and the symptoms, because a lot of those symptoms and those health problems aren't lived in a social vacuum, they lived out there with other people. And those, understanding those influences that those other groups in a person's life ,those other people in a person's life have. provides a bit more of a holistic, I think, understanding of health.


    Sandro Demaio  17:41

    It's incredible to think about the power of connection, not just in preventing disease, but also potentially treating it.


    Catherine Haslam 17:48



    Sandro Demaio 17:49

    But how do you make those connections? So, so what if you're, you're out there, you're trying to meet people, you're trying new things, you're engaging with new people and strangers, but the relationships are just not sticking, they're not becoming meaningful. What, what then?


    Cathrine Haslam  18:04

    So one of the things I think that's really been built up internationally is this whole idea of social prescribing, making sure that there are activities and supports out there in people's, people's communities and group-based activities largely, that people have access to. And part of social prescribing involves working with a caseworker. There's different names, community navigators, who actually know what's available out there in people's communities, and can link people up with activities, that one's sort of talking to people who experience loneliness, trying to connect them with groups that would matter to them based on what their interests actually are.

    Now, social prescribing is something that we're trying to build. So, we've got groups like the Consumer Health Forum, we also have groups like the GPs, who are really trying to promote something like this and increase the availability of those sorts of hands-on support to link people up. But one of the things I think that we also know is that, we're never going to have enough money, in the health service in the system, I think, to have enough navigators to support everybody. And so, what we need to do is alongside that is we need to build people's self-efficacy, their social connection efficacy, trying to give them the knowledge and the skills to help them understand why social relationships matter for health.,


    Sandro Demaio  19:44

    And how does social prescribing actually work to connect people, are they like, going to their GP? Because it feels a little strange to turn up to GP and say, hi, I'm here looking for some friends and they say, okay, let me help you find some.


    Cathrine Haslam  19:57

    Yeah, no, it's true. And look I think that certainly turning up to community services and local community networks, because that's where people are going to be connecting, if you want to connect, it's got to be in people's local areas. And so, there's a lot of, lot of organisations and charities out there that are already providing some of these activities. Some of them are structured. So, they're provided through groups like the Salvation Army, Relationships Australia, are also sort of providing some of these opportunities. But there are groups out there that are in the community, that could be walking groups, volunteering groups, a lot of them exist. So it's about trying to find out, going to some of those local community networks and councils to see what actually exist out there.


    Sandro Demaio  20:40

    What about kids? So if we want to have these conversations with our kids, particularly, you know, teenagers, I've got a niece who's amazing, but you know, I can already start to see her sense of self and identity is shifting. How do we have these conversations with our kids, particularly the importance of connection?


    Cathrine Haslam  21:00

    Look, I think we should be having some of these conversations in schools. I mean, I think that we already are doing that in schools, as well as I think that we're having some of those conversations with with families. So parents are starting to have some of those conversations with their own children. So I do think it's about normalising those conversations, that we shouldn't feel shame about not having enough connections or feeling lonely, despite the fact that that's how, how people describe it. We should be open about these discussions, because there are things that we can do about them. So starting young, starting to think about prevention at a young age, I think is really important to do, we should shift, we should shift that boundary, we shouldn't just wait until a crisis happens. We should be getting in there, we shouldn't be waiting until a problem actually arises. We should be teaching some of those skills.


    Meg  21:59

    I think it's like any sort of activity that you like, when you share it, you've got the connection. And amongst a group of people, there are some people that you're drawn to more than others. But with everybody, it's that sharing and that fun. And, and you build a history of, of things that you can laugh about and maybe complain about. Occasionally.


    Zach  22:42

    At the choir group it's been quite welcoming these past few weeks, and it's been much easier to make social interactions with people as everyone's welcoming, kind and often forgiving of amateurs like myself.


    Vivien  22:27

    Where do you get to spend, beautiful quality time, with a group of people of all those different ages and backgrounds, doing something you love? You can't beat it, really. So that's why I'm still here.


    Background choir 22:39

    Okay, let’s put it together folks.


    Sandro Demaio  22:55

    Thanks again to Professor Cath Haslam from the University of Queensland, and to the members of the ARCapella community choir in Melbourne for sharing their incredible stories. And thank you, for listening to In Good Health. If you enjoyed this episode, scroll back in your podcast feed for more. We've already talked about burnout, and the confusing world of food labelling earlier this season. Make sure you hit follow in your favourite podcast app, because there's still more great episodes to come. We'll dive into why it's so hard to get a good night's sleep, and the hidden factors stopping us from being more active. In Good Health is a VicHealth podcast produced by DeadSet studios and hosted by me Dr. Sandro Demaio.

Artwork by Dexx (Gunditjmara/Boon Wurrung) ‘Mobs Coming Together’ 2022
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Artwork Credit: Dexx (Gunditjmara/Boon Wurrung) ‘Mobs Coming Together’ 2022, acrylic on canvas. Learn more about this artwork.