Wait a minute…social relationships can affect our health? Though it may be hard to believe, scientists are finding that our links to others can have powerful effects on our health. And they’re not just referring to romantic partners, but to family, friends, neighbors, and others, who can ultimately influence our biology and well-being. Not to be a bummer, but studies show that those with the lowest level of involvement in social relationships have poorer health, higher rates of depression, and even slightly higher mortality rates, compared to those individuals with greater social involvement.
In addition to Heart Health Month, Valentine’s Day also falls in February. For some of us, this holiday means getting together with loved ones, friends, and family. Such occasions give us the chance to check in with each other, exchange pleasantries, or lend a supportive shoulder. Social connections like this not only make us happy, but they also impact our health in ways that are just about as powerful and impactful as getting a full night’s sleep, having a healthy diet, and more (Mayo Clinic, 2016). The bottom line is that people who interact regularly with family, friends, and even their community, are happier and healthier.
So what makes these social relationships so healthy for us? One way, is that these relationships reduce our stress. Stress, when not managed and dealt with in healthy ways, can affect coronary arteries, our gut function, and the immune system. Additionally, research shows that caring behaviors even trigger the release of stress-reducing hormones.
It’s not enough to just have a couple of acquaintances either. Health-inducing relationships have to be meaningful, quality relationships. One study, for example, found that women who were in highly satisfying marriages, or marital-type relationships, have a lower risk for cardiovascular disease, compared with those in less satisfying marriages. This study also found signs of reduced immunity in couples during hostile marital spats (Harvard Health Publishing, 2010).
But what about friendships…are those important too? Let’s check the relationship meter.
Friendships are very important to your health. It takes some time and energy to maintain friendships, but they are very worthwhile, and can have a major impact on your health. Friends are there for you in challenging times, when you need support, and they are also there with you to celebrate the good times as well. Friendship prevents loneliness and gives you a source of companionship. Friends can also increase your sense of well-being, boost your happiness and reduce your stress, improve your confidence, help you cope with traumas, and encourage you to change or avoid your unhealthy lifestyle habits. Those with a strong supporting group of friends can enjoy reduced risk of many significant health problems, including depression, high blood pressure, and even an unhealthy BMI (body mass index).
Interestingly, scientists have also been looking into whether simply believing that you have strong social support may help protect against the harms of stress. For example, long-term conflicts with others are a stressor that can affect health. But research shows that its effects are buffered by perceived social support, which is good news. Also, simply hugging a person can help reduce their stress. People who reported having more frequent hugs were less likely to develop an infection after being exposed to a virus (News in Health, 2017).
Now that you know how important social relationships are to your health, here are some tips you can use to make a few more friends and expand your social circle. You may find it helpful to attend community events. Look for groups or clubs that gather around an interest or hobby you share. These groups are often listed in the newspaper or on community bulletin boards. There are also lot’s of websites out there nowadays that facilitate these kind of group hangouts.
Another helpful tip is to volunteer. Giving your time to a worthy, charitable cause not only makes you feel better, but it’s also a great place to meet people. You’d be surprised at the strong connections that you can forge with people who have mutual interests (like volunteering).
Remember, it’s never too late to build new relationships or reconnect with old friends. Investing in these social ties can pay off in the long term, and make you a healthier and happier person.