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Loneliness and Connection: A Conversation with Catherine A. Sanderson, PhD

Laughing senior friends sitting together on a park bench

Living through the COVID-19 pandemic has increased feelings of isolation for many of us. As things begin to return to normal, you may feel there’s some catching up to do!

But what kinds of human connections do we really need? And how do we go about making or reestablishing those connections?

Catherine A. Sanderson, PhD is the Poler Family Professor and Chair of Psychology at Amherst College. She’s also a popular public speaker and the author of bestselling books like The Positive Shift and Why We Act. And she was my absolute favorite professor at Amherst College!

I thought Dr. Sanderson would have fantastic insights into loneliness and connection. And indeed she does … as I found out when I approached her for an interview! Here is our conversation. I hope you find her perspectives and suggestions useful as I did.

The Two Kinds of Relationships We All Need

Julia: Are there different types of relationships or connections we need in order to be happy?

Dr. Sanderson: Yes! We really need two kinds of connections in our lives: social connections and intimate connections. These two distinct kinds of relationships are vitally important for our psychological (and honestly our physical) well-being. But don’t just take my word for it; here is what a 2018 American Psychological Association (APA) article reports about the abundant body of research on social connections — which give you a sense of belonging to a community:

“It’s not an exaggeration to say that lack of social connections can be deadly. Strong social relationships increase the likelihood of survival by 50 percent regardless of age, sex, or health status … Social disconnection is at least as harmful to people as such well-accepted risk factors as obesity, physical inactivity, and smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day.”

As for intimate connections, they, too, increase our health and life expectancy — provided that those relationships are healthy and nurturing. The APA article says:

“People in secure, committed romantic relationships have a lower risk of heart disease, for example, while those who have relationship discord have a higher risk.”

I would add that intimate relationships don’t have to be romantic. It’s about being emotionally close to someone and sharing your lives with each other — whatever that happens to look like.

Intimate Connection

Julia: Let’s unpack those two types of relationships, social connections and intimate connections, a little bit more, since I’m sure most folks don’t know what they are. What is intimate connection and why do we need it?

Dr. Sanderson: Intimate connection means having a person who you can share the good and the bad with. It could be your spouse, best friend, or a close relative. It’s a person or people that you can truly be your authentic self with.

Some people have lots of social connections but they don’t have that one special person, or an intimate connection, and you need both kinds of relationships to avoid feeling lonely.

Social Connection

Julia: Ok, and what about the second type of connection we need, social connection?

Dr. Sanderson: Social connection is about feeling like you’re part of a community. Let me paint you a picture.

My spouse and I have been together practically 24 hours a day, seven days a week, through this whole pandemic. I feel so lucky to have such a wonderful person to go through quarantine with!

But I’m not going to my regular aerobics class and seeing familiar faces. I didn’t go to a New Year’s Eve party or a holiday party with friends. And I miss these broader social connections!

At least last summer my husband and I could interact with people outdoors. But during the long winter months, we weren’t seeing anyone.

So even though we had each other, something huge was missing.

Quality Over Quantity

Julia: So, does quality of our relationships matter more than quantity?

Dr. Sanderson: Having just a couple of solid, high-quality relationships matters more than having a lot of connections. I have a good friend who is a divorce mediator. She told me her business has been booming since the start of the pandemic. Why? Because there are a lot of people who’ve been meaning to get divorced for ages. But they just never had time to do it before!

If you’re in a relationship that is not really working for you (whether it’s a marriage or a best friendship or whatever), this is an opportunity to say “life is short. I want to spend time with people I really care about and who really care about me.”

Look for someone who you can be your authentic self with, whether it’s a friend, family member, colleague, or neighbor.

To Be Continued!

If you’ve been feeling isolated, hopefully this conversation will make it easier to pinpoint what’s missing in your relationships and social connections. If you’re wondering what you can do about it, check out my follow-up conversation with Dr. Sanderson: “Making New Social Connections.”

Here’s to building a more nurturing and fulfilling social landscape for all of us!

Julia Weatherly

Julia Weatherly is a Lead Government Market Stars Program Analyst. She is a graduate from Amherst College and the University of Pennsylvania’s Master of Public Health program. Julia is originally from Silver Spring, MD and spends her free time playing with her Great Pyrenees, Macy, cooking with her family, and exploring Philadelphia.