We often don’t think of nurturing our relationships as a tool for promoting good health. However, maintaining healthy social connections may help us all live a longer life.
According to a recent study from Brigham Young University, published in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science, strong social ties offer positive health effects. And a lack of them may shorten your lifespan.
The feeling of loneliness increases the risk of death by 26%, while social isolation and living alone were found to increase mortality risk by 29% and 32%, respectively.
In fact, loneliness heightens your risk of death as much as obesity does, notes the study.
Tim Smith, co-author of the study and professor of counseling psychology at Brigham Young University, says that several factors help explain why stronger social networks decrease the risk of premature death.
For starters, strong social networks often lead to improved health habits, nutrition and self-care. That’s in addition to other benefits like enhanced immune system functioning, an increased sense of meaningfulness and improved social capital (such as close family members to watch out for symptoms indicating the onset of illness), he notes.
Additionally, having different types of social relationships — including being married, having friends and belonging to a social group — is linked to better health, says Rodlescia Sneed, PhD, health psychologist and postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Pittsburgh.
She says that people with different types of social relationships live longer, are less susceptible to infectious disease, and experience less cognitive decline with aging.
Needless to say, if you’ve been slacking in the social department lately, it’s time to get on the ball and strengthen those social ties with family, friends and co-workers. It’ll help you live longer.
Here are four health benefits of healthy social relationships.
If you’ve been feeling stressed out, lean on the members of your social network.
Sneed says that social relationships are very important for managing stress.
“People in your social network can provide you with advice, emotional support, or general information related to a particular stressor,” she says.
And that can give your health a boost.
“Good stress management can help to improve psychological outcomes and health habits, which can have implications for physical health,” says Sneed.
Those who are more stressed, on the other hand, have poor psychological outcomes and bad health habits — poor sleep, poor diet and less physical activity, notes Sneed. They also tend to use more tobacco and alcohol, she adds.
You may have heard it before: “A hug a day keeps the doctor away.” And new research from Carnegie Mellon University confirms it.
The study from Carnegie Mellon suggests that hugs not only help us feel connected to others, they protect us from stress-induced sickness.
Smith says that other studies have found this correlation as well.
In those studies, Smith says that researchers have purposefully exposed research participants to the virus that causes colds. Then they track who comes down with symptoms. People in those studies with stronger social connections were less likely to develop cold symptoms, he notes.
That means that your immune system and your social networks have a pretty close relationship. Keep close social ties and you’ll be less likely to get sick.
Strong social connections also tend to increase happiness.
“People who have strong social ties report more happiness than those who do not,” says Sneed.
That’s because social ties provide a sense of belonging and offer opportunities for companionship, she notes.
And, of course, increased happiness can be good for our health.
Sneed says, “Happier people live longer and are less susceptible to disease than their counterparts.”
Indeed, happy people may take better care of themselves and are less likely to engage in risky health behaviors, notes Sneed.
They may also have better social networks, socialize more and seek out friendships. Not surprisingly, people are more likely to want to be around them, Sneed says.
Improved mental health
Strong social connections not only help our health physically, but they also benefit our mental health, according to the study from Brigham Young University.
In fact, the correlation between social connectivity and positive mental health has been well-documented across decades of research, notes Smith.
“The human brain is wired for social interactions, and lack of social integration has a host of negative emotional and psychological consequences,” says Smith.
For instance, young children without adequate affection fail to thrive and can develop insecure patterns of attachment across their lives, he notes.
But building and maintaining healthy social relationships can improve your psychological well-being.
Sneed says that people with strong social ties report less loneliness and fewer depressive symptoms. That’s a boon for everyone, but it’s especially helpful for those with mental health conditions.
Tips for building strong social connections
It can take some effort to build healthy relationships. Smith and Sneed offer some tips to help along the way.
- Reach out to other people who are isolated. “When we seek out others who may feel lonely, we uplift them and ourselves,” says Smith.
- Repair damaged relationships. Psychological research has shown that forgiveness and reconciliation are keys to a happy life, notes Smith.
- Don’t overlook the importance of family. “Strong families are the foundation of a strong society,” says Smith.
- Seek out opportunities for social contact. “Any activities that allow you to consistently have contact with other people can help build your social networks,” says Sneed.
- Finally, establish and maintain contact with your current social network, notes Sneed.