The Science of Social Connection

Thanks to digital technologies, we live in an era of unprecedented connectivity. Yet, paradoxically, data indicate about one in four adults in America report experiencing loneliness. The COVID-19 pandemic only accelerated trends that were already in place, with young adults, people earning lower incomes, and people from groups that have been economically and socially marginalized more likely to experience loneliness.

Decades of research has demonstrated how diminished human connection can profoundly impact not only our emotional well-being but also our physical health. In fact, people who report experiencing loneliness or social isolation are at higher risk of early death. Behavioral and social science research is helping us unravel the mechanisms involved in the power of social connection as well as develop possible interventions to counteract its harms.

As a coordinating office at NIH, the Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research (OBSSR) has contributed to this area through the NIH Basic Behavioral and Social Science Opportunity Network (“OppNet”) with funding opportunities inviting research projects that seek to explain underlying mechanisms, processes, and trajectories of social relationships and how these factors affect outcomes in human health, illness, recovery, and overall well-being. These have been reissued twice, with over 40 grants funded to date. Of note, these funding opportunities (PAR-21-349, PAR-21-350, PAR-21-352) have one remaining receipt date on June 21, 2024.

These grants have helped grow the community of investigators focused on this critical area and have produced valuable research findings, including the following publications:

Additionally, on March 19, OBSSR hosted a Director’s Webinar with one of the leaders in this field—Dr. Julianne Holt-Lunstad. Dr. Holt-Lunstad discussed the issue of social connection, evidence of health implications, and challenges and opportunities for translating this evidence into practical solutions and policy.