Ziggi Santini: Social connection is linked to our well-being

Ziggi Santini: Social connection is linked to our well-being

Do you know how socializing and community activities can affect how you feel? Dr. Ziggi Santini, a researcher in the field of mental health, reveals this to us.

First, please tell us a bit about your connection to Croatia. I was interested to find out more when you told me you had a connection to here and have also worked a bit in Croatia.

My father is from Croatia. He worked on a ship when he met my mother, and they got married not long after that. We used to visit Croatia every summer as I grew up, and still do. In 2017, I did an exchange at the Psychiatric Hospital Vrapce. But this was just a short while, apart from that, I haven’t spent much time in Croatia in a professional capacity.

In general, would you say that your research interest can be summarized as the research of wellbeing and how it is linked to social connection? What drew you to these topics in the first place?

I did my PhD in mental health epidemiology with a focus on social connectedness. Before that, my main interests were social psychology, behavioral psychology, and cognitive-behavioral therapy. Through my studies and (work)experience, I had learned much about the tremendous power of social influence on human psychology, so it seemed like a good fit for me to study social connectedness during my PhD. After I finished my doctorate, I went from focusing on mental illness epidemiology to being more focused on the promotion of mental health and well-being in population-settings.

I find your research about social isolation and its relation to mental health very interesting. As a sociologist and author interested in mental health, I personally think feelings of social connection are decisive when it comes to mental health. Of course, it is not always a simple linear relation, in the sense that many aspects of one’s experience or social factors can interfere with one’s sense of connection. For example, maybe someone has not developed a capacity for connection or maybe it has worsened during the years through some traumatic experiences. How do you see this?

All human beings have an intrinsic and ingrained need to feel connected with other people, and the lack of it is predictive of poor mental health as well as physical illness and mortality. Countless research investigations show the same pattern again and again. And yes, experiences (e.g. traumatic ones) can very much interfere with people’s ability to connect with others, which usually becomes a problem later on. For example, adverse childhood experiences often develop into addiction or drug misuse, presumably as a result of broken social bonds.

What happens in addiction is that addicts use drugs to artificially experience a sense of connection without actual human contact, which is also why they often lose interest in their social world. In a healthy context, humans connected closely with others, which releases endorphins and oxytocin through human contact. But when social bonds are broken, humans will find other ways to get their need for connection met, and often pay the price later on when it’s too late.

Further, we see the reversal mechanism having major importance in therapy and rehabilitation, i.e. addicts must learn to open up to others and lean on the support of others in order to recover from their addiction. In other words, the solution (or part of it) lies in mending that social bond somehow. Maia Szalavitz has written quite a lot about addiction being a learned mechanism, which is relevant in this context. Nadine Burke Harris has as well. Of course, addiction is just one example, but it’s particularly useful as an illustration of the human need for social connection, as well as the consequences of unmet needs.

In your research, you have placed emphasis on social connection as an important contributor to the psychological well-being of older generations. This includes social activities like joining clubs, interest groups, or volunteering. Can you tell us a bit more about this?

It’s not just older adults, but the same basic ingredients apply to everyone when it comes to mental health and well-being. We use a framework called Act-Belong-Commit or the ABCs of mental health, which involves three basic behavioral principles for promoting mental health and well-being: Keep physically, mentally, socially, and spiritually active (Act); develop a sense of belonging through social support networks and participation in group and community activities (Belong); and take on challenges and commit to activities and hobbies that provide meaning and purpose (Commit). These are lifestyle principles that can be implemented by virtually everyone, and decades of research have suggested that each of these three are fundamental when it comes to promoting and protecting mental health. The point is that there are simple straightforward things that people themselves can do to enhance mental health, and we are trying to raise awareness about this in our campaign.

I have read your findings saying that people with relatively few close relationships could benefit from an increase in formal social participation. Could you explain this a bit more (in a layperson language)?

Certain social activities, such as volunteering and community participation, are especially likely to promote social connectedness. Obviously, these would be activities where there are other people present and preferably people that engage in the same activity (together). Consequently, people with few close social relationships (especially those that are lonely and socially isolated) are likely to benefit more from engaging frequently in such activities, while people with many close relationships often already have their need for social connection met, and thus may not benefit as much from it. And this is exactly what we have observed in our recent research.

What activities exactly do help people in general when it comes to their well-being?

We don’t have a conclusive list of specific activities that people can do. People are different and motivated by different types of activities. In general, what matters is that a person experiences the activity as being personally meaningful in some way. Variation is key, so it’s good to have a number of different activities that provide different types of stimulation. Here is a list that provides a list of five types of social activities and why they are linked to better physical and mental health. However, there are also many other activities that can be beneficial, but not listed here.

Do you see the sense of social isolation somehow connected to the way of life in contemporary times?

If there is one distinguishing characteristic of contemporary life, I suppose it would be the use of social media. There is some evidence that social media use might actually increase social isolation and loneliness, presumably because people may be replacing real-world social interaction with digital interaction (and there may be other reasons as well). The initial assumption most of us had was that social media would promote social connectedness, but this may not at all be the case. More recent research also suggests that is it directly involved in declines in mental health, especially among adolescents.

We are currently finding ourselves in the COVID crisis which has impacted the ways in which we live ways unprecedented in our lives. You’ve also done research on the depressive state of Denmark during the early days of the COVID pandemics. Can you tell us a bit more about your findings?  How do you think that this pandemic affects psychological well-being in general?

Most countries saw a decline in mental health during lockdowns, and then a trend towards normal when societies started opening up again. There are probably several factors at play here, probably anxiety related to the spread of the virus and its effects on functioning society, but also the effects of lockdowns rather than the imminent threats of the virus itself.

As mentioned, human beings are fundamentally social beings, so when opportunities to formally or informally engage with others are removed or restricted, we are likely to see a decline in mental health. A classic 2008 study showed that volunteers who lost their oppurtunity for volunteering due to the collapse of East Germany and its infrastructure, saw a decline in life satisfaction, compared to Germans in West Germany who was not affected in terms of their opportunities to volunteer. In a similar way, we should expect that restrictions throughout society will also have an effect on population mental health because of the limitations to socializing with others and participating in activities.

Could you maybe propose some of the ways in which people could cope with pandemics when it comes to feeling social connection and mandatory isolation? When it comes to the psychological challenges of this pandemic, this seems to be pretty important.

This is probably where we should make use of technology, but in a strategic and constructive way (as opposed to mindless internet searches and use of social media). If we are a little bit creative, we can do many activities online with others, for example, play cards games with others online and skype with them at the same time. Many people have been successful in scheduling physical exercise sessions online, which can be a very good way to motivate oneself and others to keep physically active despite restrictions. There’s probably a million things people can come up with to connect with others at a distance.

In the last years, community service developments are seen as increasingly important in the area of mental health. What do you think about those? How should communities be integrated into the (re-)acquisition of psychological well-being?

This is also a major part of our ABC campaign and partnership. It’s not enough to simply give people advice about how they can take care of their own mental health, it’s fundamental that there is also a social system in place that supports people in doing so. This requires a behavioral economic approach (i.e. making it as easy and accessible as possible for people to engage in mentally healthy behaviors) and a cross-sectoral approach (i.e. collaborations throughout communities and various sectors to ensure mental-health-in-all-policies).

Has your personal experience somehow shaped the way you think about mental health? If yes, in what ways? What have you learned about the human condition from your work and research?

I think every single psychology student will have his or her perspective shaped by previous experiences. For me, the social difficulties I experienced in my childhood and teenage years made me ambitious to learn about social influence because I wanted to understand it rather than be at the mercy of it. Later on, as I was a psychology student, I was constantly confronted with situations that applied to my studies in one way or another. One of the most important things I have learned is probably that if we do not observe and understand how we work internally – our mind and emotions – both independently and in relation to others, it can become a barrier to healthy functioning and fulfillment in life. As Socrates put it, „The unexamined life is not worth living“.