The Importance of Social Connections in Emotional Well Being
TN:You’re focusing your work on emotional well-being. For people who tend to lump this into the big bucket that is mental health, how do you differentiate what you’re doing?
VM:“Emotional well-being is the fuel that allows us to be more and do more. Many think that emotional well-being is the same thing as mental illness, that what we’re talking about is one and the same. But I want to be clear that mental illness is one part of the spectrum of emotional well-being—just because I don’t have a diagnosable mental illness doesn’t mean that I’m functioning at the optimal level.
For example, all of us have had the experience of going into work on a given day and feeling like we’re in a funk or simply, not in a good place. We know that, on those days, we tend to perform less well, we’re more likely to have suboptimal interactions with others, and we tend not to be as good at resolving conflict and dealing with stress.
On the other hand, when we are operating in a high state of emotional well-being, we can do more, resolve conflict better, we can show up better for our work colleagues, our family and our loved ones.
It’s important to think about emotional well-being as applicable to everyone – it includes a component of mental illness, but there’s a much larger portion of the spectrum that we can all strive to optimize regardless of whether we have diagnosable mental illness. When we think about it this way, we realize emotional well-being is deeply connected to everything we care about – and relevant for each and every person.”
TN:How is emotional well-being related to the diseases of despair—drug and alcohol misuse and suicide?
Our emotional well-being is a buffer that reduces the impact of the stresses and adversities of life. When our emotional well-being is low, our risk for depression and anxiety is increased as is our risk of suicide. Unchecked, stress can cause emotional pain, and as human beings, we will seek to relieve pain when it arises. The question then becomes what do we reach for to alleviate this pain. If the answer is alcohol, drugs, violence, or other harmful outlets, then we will end up harming ourselves and others.
I say this, knowing full well, that what people can reach for isn’t 100 percent up to them—it’s often guided by the circumstances around them. When you talk about ACEs, for instance, a child’s likelihood of developing an alcohol or substance use disorder is much higher if they’ve experience traumatic events at a young event. It’s not because they lack willpower, it’s because of their circumstances.
So many issues that I worked on as Surgeon General trace their roots back to a component of emotional well-being. We can set up all the substance use disorder treatment centers we want, but if we aren’t addressing fundamentally the emotional well-being of our communities, we won’tprevent diseases of despair from cropping up.”
TN:How does emotional well-being impact our society and civil discourse?
VM:Our emotional well-being affects how we treat each other. If you’re worried about the state of discourse in this country—and who isn’t—then you should also worry about emotional well-being. When our level of emotional well-being is high, we’re much better able to listen, pause, and resolve conflict.
Think about this on a country-level. If our communities are constantly stressed, fearful and angry, how are we, collectively, going to dialogue about intergenerational issues—climate change, our health care system, violence, etc.?
So, the investment in emotional well-being is very important, not just for health of individuals but the well-being of society.
TN:When you talk about emotional well-being being intertwined with our civil discourse and communities, how do you see it, as an issue, as it relates to politics?
VM: At a time when the country is looking for issues that cross boundaries, here’s one right in front of us that can improve health, the economy, and all aspects of our communities. Unlike many other issues, the topic of emotional well-being is a trans-partisan issue.
To advance emotional well-being, we must change our culture and view of emotions. To drive policy change as well as scientific change, we need clear policy and scientific agendas. Both the substance and pursuit of emotional well-being could have a profound and healing effect on our politics and our policy.
TN: How do we solve the increasing sentiments of loneliness or social isolation we’re experiencing across the nation, particularly among our young people?
VM: Social connection is a powerful resource for diminishing stress and improving emotional well-being. For those who have experienced loneliness – or an absence of adequate social connection – you know it can be a terrible gnawing feeling that can take you away from your relationships and work. People who are chronically lonely live much shorter lives and have a higher incidence of illness. It’s as powerful a killer as smoking or obesity. All of which makes it so concerning that rates of loneliness are so high, particularly among young people.
As we think about how to strengthen social connection and reduce loneliness, we must give young people a foundation for understanding how to process and regulate their emotions. We must also reexamine how we use technology and ask how we can use social media in a manner that fosters stronger in person relationships instead of substituting online for offline connections.
Lastly, it is essential that philanthropy, public health and medicine focus not only on implementing solutions but also on increasing public demand for enhanced emotional well-being.This is the piece that has been missing. If we don’t cultivate public awareness and buy-in about the importance of public investments in emotional well-being, then it doesn’t matter how much we in downstream programs. It will be difficult to create long term, sustainable programs without public support.
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