Scientists are just beginning to understand the full scope of the gut microbiome: the diverse community of microorganisms that live within your digestive tract that have been shown to influence everything from your immune system to your mood.
Maintaining balance in this community, a growing body of research suggests, has a strong ripple effect on mental and physical health.
It’s also, as communications researcher Jeffrey Hall argues, a great metaphor. The microbiome is the framework he uses to explain his concept of the “social biome,” the idea that social well-being depends on a regular and varied mix of interactions.
“We were fascinated by the idea that you have this balance in your body of things that help keep you healthy,” says Hall, a professor at the University of Kansas.
“When you are unbalanced, you don’t bloom and you get sick. We were saying, ‘Let’s think of human interaction as nutrition.’”
In a new study published in the journal Human Communication Research, Hall and co-author Andy Merolla, a professor of communication at the University of California, Santa Barbara, analyzed more than 10,000 social interactions recorded in the diaries of approximately 400 participants.
From their source material, the two researchers were able to select five key components for a healthy social biome.
“We’ve seen a lot of research suggesting that more social interactions are better,” Hall says, but “the one with the strongest empirical support was that when you’re alone and happy in that way, it’s a great indicator that they’re socially healthy.”
Think about it. How you would feel at the end of a successful networking event or a cozy Thanksgiving weekend with your family?
Even the most outgoing among us will probably love the opportunity to take some time for themselves after a socialization marathon.” When people had a nurturing interaction earlier in the day, they were even more likely to be happy alone later,” says Hall.
But you can’t just turn down invitations. To achieve social biome health, you may have to do a little more with your alone time than mindlessly check Instagram, says Kristen Radtke, author of the forthcoming book Seek You: Essays on American Loneliness.
“It’s about the intent,” she says. “In the same way that we need to spend time not working and just relaxing if you’re accidentally browsing the internet, that’s not really relaxing.”
That’s not to say that there’s necessarily a right way to spend time with yourself; As long as you see it as time alone with a purpose, the activity doesn’t really matter.
“Organize your bathroom. Read a novel. Do some creative project,” says Radtke. “In reality, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. It is important to listen to yourself and listen to what you need.”
And there is a difference between solitude and loneliness. While the former is accompanied by feelings of contentment, the latter is an unpleasant feeling that Hall says may stem from a biological need to be around other people.
“There is research that suggests loneliness is a trigger. We feel isolated, so we will be asked to connect with other people,” he says. “We have developed mechanisms that push us into social interactions because they keep us safe and fed.”
But just as the body’s microbiome is often unique to the individual, everyone has their own threshold of where welcome loneliness ends and loneliness begins, says Radtke.
“That’s why there are some people in the world who are hardly ever alone but feel lonely, and some people who are always alone and never feel lonely,” she says. “Loneliness works when you feel totally satisfied with your connection with other people. Once you have that basic need met, it’s much easier to spend time alone.”