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  • Melissa Sims

Cultivating Meaningful Relationships in the Digital Age

The older I get the more I notice how much I love to be alone. I used to be super social and loved getting together with friends and colleagues. Now? I would much rather have a cup of tea, sit under a warm blanket and read a book, then deal with crowds and drama. And while that may sound very appealing to some, it is actually not the best thing for my mental health. 

Humans, at a scientific level, are social creatures. We learn and grow by being around others, and we rely on human connection for survival. In fact, our brains are actually as large as they are (which is larger in relation to our body size than most other species) because they evolved that way. Anthropologist Robin Dunbar claimed that the reason humans developed such large brains (in particular the neocortex, or outermost part of the brain) was so that we could deal with the growth and complexity of social interactions and social networks. At the very core of our mental well-being is interaction with others. It has helped us survive, evolve, and thrive. But humanity is slowly moving backward toward isolation, as we spend more and more time with technology. Just as our brains have evolved for more connections, we also evolved a signaling mechanism to warn us that we aren’t getting enough of it: loneliness. Just as thirst and hunger are a sign that our needs are not being met, so is loneliness. 

According to the Surgeon General:

“Loneliness is far more than just a bad feeling—it harms both individual and societal health. It is associated with a greater risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, stroke, depression, anxiety, and premature death. The mortality impact of being socially disconnected is similar to that caused by smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day, and even greater than that associated with obesity and physical inactivity. And the harmful consequences of a society that lacks social connection can be felt in our schools, workplaces, and civic organizations, where performance, productivity, and engagement are diminished.”

Building and maintaining meaningful relationships has become increasingly challenging the more and more we sit in front of screens. With the rise of online-based work and activities, the landscape of human interaction has shifted dramatically. While the digital age offers unprecedented convenience and connectivity, it also poses unique obstacles to forming deep, meaningful connections both at work and in our personal lives.

The shift towards remote work and online communication has revolutionized the way we interact with colleagues. Virtual meetings, instant messaging, and email have replaced face-to-face interactions, leading to a more impersonal and fragmented mode of communication. While these tools are efficient, they often lack the emotional depth and nuance of in-person conversations, making it harder to build trust and camaraderie. There are numerous companies that operate 100% remotely, with staff never having met each other in real life. Can you imagine how hard it must be to connect, collaborate, and trust your coworkers?

In our personal lives, social media and digital communication platforms have similarly altered how we connect with friends and family. Although these tools allow us to stay in touch across great distances, they can also lead to superficial interactions and a sense of isolation. The constant barrage of updates and notifications can create a false sense of connection, leaving us feeling more alone than ever. Don’t get me wrong, digital connection has become a wonderful way to stay in touch with people. But it is not a valuable way to forge NEW relationships or to deepen existing ones. This has unsurprisingly led to a massive amount of people suffering from loneliness, with less and less interaction in our personal and professional lives.

Social media platforms often create an illusion of connection by encouraging frequent but shallow interactions. Liking a post or leaving a quick comment can give the impression of engagement without fostering genuine understanding or emotional depth. This can lead to feelings of loneliness and disconnection despite being constantly "connected."

It’s important to prioritize quality over quantity when it comes to relationships. Rather than spreading ourselves too thin by trying to connect with everyone, we should focus on building deeper, more meaningful connections with a select few individuals. This allows us to invest more time and energy into each relationship, fostering a stronger bond. Ultimately, it is the quality of our relationships that enriches our lives and contributes to our overall well-being. The lack of genuine human interaction and the prevalence of superficial connections can exacerbate feelings of loneliness and isolation. These issues highlight the importance of mindful engagement with digital platforms and the need to cultivate deeper, more meaningful relationships to support our mental health. By balancing our online interactions with face-to-face communication and focusing on quality over quantity, we can mitigate the negative effects of digital relationships and promote better mental well-being.

I hope you take the opportunity to spend time with your colleagues, friends, and family in a face to face setting this week. Share a cup of coffee, share a laugh, and share stories. Even if you don’t feel like it, get out from under your warm blanket and cozy couch. I promise, you’ll feel better once you do! 


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