Health Benefits of Social Interaction with People and Animals: Analysis

Heather Campbell
 min read

Health benefits of social interaction have been the subject of scientific studies that gave startling results.

Health Benefits of Social Interaction with People and Animals: AnalysisOur social environment primarily determines how we behave, and the impact is hard to overestimate.

As a whole, the health benefits of social interaction with people and animals are similar and leads to an overall improvement in mental and physical health. Connection, empathy and compassion are basic needs, and it is vital to cultivate a healthy environment through social interaction.

Science shows that both healthy and unhealthy behavior is actually contagious, so read on to understand how.

Health benefits of social interaction: Introduction

An ingenious study tracked people and their social networks over several decades.

The team was particularly interested in the relationship between the participants’ social networks (friends, partners, neighbors) and obesity.

Source: Christakis & Fowler, The Spread of Obesity in a Large Social Network over 32 Years, N Engl J Med, 2007

Our relationships influence our health

The results were startling: obesity, in fact, seemed to spread across social networks. As a result, people with obese friends were much more likely to become obese themselves.

The intent here is not to start avoiding and stigmatizing anyone. Still, it appears that people thus tend to group themselves into obese and non-obese networks for some reason.

This knowledge helps us know how our behavior is influenced by the people around us.

Having healthy friends is important

So not only is it essential to have friends but who those friends are also plays a role. If you have many friends who live healthy lives, you are more likely to live a healthy life yourself and become your own best friend.

Smokers will not be surprised by this. They, unfortunately, know that smoking is usually the result of contact with friends who also smoked.

That’s why the idea of a smoke-free generation is so important. Namely, if nobody around you smokes, hardly anyone will become enticed to start a habit that causes them to die 10 years earlier.

Same-sex friends have the greatest influence

The study also examined which relationships had the most substantial influence. Mutual friendships, in which one person and the other referred to each other as friends, had the greatest impact.

Also noteworthy was gender:

  • Same-sex friends had a more significant influence.
  • Women were strongly influenced by their girlfriends, but male friends had no influence at all.
  • Conversely, men were also more influenced by male friends.
  • Spouses have some influence, but surprisingly a lot less than same-sex friends.

A plausible explanation is that people tend to (unconsciously) adopt social norms, especially from people who consider each other friends.

For example, this is evident in fashion and clothing, but it also works for health standards.

The effect of the political system on our health

Linking health to political ideologies is delicate, but there is evidence that people feel better and stay healthier longer in political systems based primarily on solidarity and mutual aid.

The Scandinavian countries are typical examples of social democratic countries that devote a significant portion of spending to care for all through well-functioning public services such as:

  • education,
  • libraries,
  • prisons,
  • health care, etc.

The Scandinavian countries keep popping up as the best countries to live in. The Danes have been named the happiest people in the world several times.

The Danish Happiness Research Institute looked into it is and found two main reasons:

  • Danes have a good social safety net with high benefits for those who become unemployed. This reduces stress, making people feel good and healthy. They also accept LGBTQ+ people, and education there is almost free.
  • These societies have a high level of trust in the other. For example, it is pretty common in Denmark to leave a stroller unattended in front of the store while entering without children being kidnapped. People appear to trust each other better.

In contrast, systems that are heavily based on the individual and where social inequality is high have a harmful impact on public health.

The same goes for those who are among the happy few. This is partly because rich people feel constantly threatened in highly unequal societies.


Mother Teresa effect

Although direct social contacts exert the strongest influence, we are also influenced by what we see on TV or movies.

Research shows that seeing a movie where people are friendly and do good deeds increases immunoglobulin A (IgA). This substance protects us from infections.

The researchers called this the Mother Teresa effect, and children appear to be particularly sensitive to this. In one experiment, two groups of children were shown an almost identical movie, only the ending differed.

One group was shown the film in which someone who had won a lottery ticket gave this money away to charity, and the other group saw one where someone kept the winnings.

Afterward, all children also received a lottery ticket. The children who had seen the more altruistic version were more likely to give it away.

So children copied the kindness they had seen. This is not only socially desirable but also healthy.

After all, numerous studies show that those who are nice to other people also feel better about themselves and are or become healthier.

One explanation is that being kind to others reduces stress and triggers the production of substances such as serotonin and dopamine, which are known to make us feel good.

Source: McClelland & Kirshnit, The effect of motivational arousal through films on salivary immunoglobulin A, Psychology & Health, 1988

Intimacy and physical contact makes us feel good

People also have a need to please other people, and a desire for intimacy (more than just sexuality) and physical contact. These are some great health benefits of social interaction.

Loving physical contact is essential, especially when growing up

When people get a hug, all kinds of substances such as serotonin and oxytocin (also called the hugging hormone) are released, making us feel good.

Even with strangers, a brief touch (provided it is not perceived as unwanted behavior) can have a positive effect.

In an experiment with waiters, customers were found to tip more if the waiter touched them briefly.

Humans (like many animals) are social creatures, and physical contact plays a vital role in that. It is especially for newborns.

Numerous experiments show how important touch is for attachment and its effect when it is absent.

It would be unethical to deliberately deny people tenderness and touch for the sake of science. Still, unfortunately, there have been “natural experiments.”

One such example is the children in Romanian orphanages in the 1990s, who were given all the nutrition they needed, but were deprived of loving contact and developed all sorts of problems later in life.

Free hugs from volunteers

Because a hug has a beneficial effect on how we feel, a number of people founded the Free Hugs Project. Volunteers from all over the world offer free hugs at well-attended events.

It doesn’t always have to be an embrace or touch either. Even a friendly gesture can create a good feeling in both the sender and the receiver.

And as noted earlier, it’s contagious and encourages other people to do the same.

Sexual intimacy is declining

Maybe you think that planned intimacy like conjugal visits in prisons doesn’t work well because it is strictly timed. We tend to believe that intimacy should come spontaneously.

However, we are too busy, and then when we have time, we are just too tired. A stressful lifestyle also brings about a decrease in libido.

So you end up in a vicious circle because sexuality and intimacy would actually help to de-stress.

This way of life, typical of industrialized countries, creates a paradox in which:

  • sexuality has evolved from taboo to something ubiquitous (think porn sites, prostitution, advertising, sex stores, etc.),
  • but at the same time, more and more people are experiencing a lack of it.

Is social media good or bad for our health?

With the rise of the Internet, the smartphone and social media, we are more able than ever to connect with people independently of their location and more tailored to our own profile such as age, interests, political leanings, etc.

We are literally connected to the whole world and can make friends, share interests, gather information, etc. There are insane benefits to this technological and social revolution.

Its effects are visible even within the family as TV is gradually being replaced as the gathering place for the whole family.

Instead, individual laptops, smartphones, tablets, and a host of chargers have taken over so that everyone can simultaneously use their own preferred media.

Less communication within the household

But there are also snags. As everyone stares at their own screen, communication with other family members diminishes.

Moreover, virtual contacts are not the same as real friends, even though Facebook and other social media can dramatically increase the number of so-called friends.

However, you don’t have direct face-to-face communication with them unless you also run into them in real life and interact with them.

This means actually engaging with them, not just a superficial hello or even ignoring them because it somehow feels awkward and intimidating seeing them in the flesh.

The protective effect of social media

On the other hand, another important study concluded that social contacts through the Internet have a protective effect just like in real life and lead to lower mortality risk.

Even in the digital world, it is not so much the number of friendships that matters, but the quality of the social interaction.

Lasting online friendships and friendships that encourage social interaction even outside the online context protect the most.

Source: Hobbs, et al., Online social integration is associated with reduced mortality risk, PNAS, 2016

Social media harms our self-image

There is also a risk that people will fall into an idealized bubble where they only see successful people doing successful things that remain unattainable to themselves.

Research also shows that people who hang out intensively on Facebook feel less good about themselves.

Other research showed that the girls who were most active on Facebook were later more concerned about their body image and weight.

At the same time, it also appears that being more active on Facebook is associated with a higher BMI, which may further increase the discrepancy between ideal body image and reality (tip: having a positive body image is important to live happily).

Thus, science is more likely to argue that social media, and Facebook in particular, has a negative effect.


The answer is not black or white

We can conclude that a high level of offline social interaction combined with moderate online social interaction is optimal for staying healthy and reducing the risk of premature death.

The technologies that have so dramatically changed our social and personal lives also offer other opportunities.

For example, Facebook is used to advise and support people with many health issues.

Of course, the advice of self-proclaimed experts and laypeople carries certain risks, and it is strongly discouraged to rely on them alone.

The added value is mainly in motivation and psychological support.

The responses on such forums show that people can draw much support from fellow sufferers because they feel and go through the same thing.

And it also helps to make some things easier to discuss, for example, mental problems such as anxiety and depression.

Increased well-being thanks to support groups

Fellow sufferers unite, and seek comfort and support from each other, need not, of course, be limited to the online world.

Expert-guided support groups

For example, being a member of a support group can have very positive effects.

These are groups where people in a similar situation (such as a particular health problem) meet regularly under the guidance of an expert.

Within such groups, participants can share their experience of the disease and their concerns in a familiar environment.

Some conditions also involve working to cure or improve the state of health.

Research suggests that such interventions benefit even very seriously ill patients.

Moreover, in addition to having an immediate effect on well-being, the meetings also appear to be effective in the longer term.

Source: Spiegel, et al., Effect of Psychosocial Treatment on Survival of Patients with Metastatic Breast Cancer, The Lancet, 1989

Online support groups

Physical meetings are important and preferable, but for practical reasons or global pandemics, they can also be held as online meetings.

Despite the limitations, virtual meetings also have benefits beyond pure practical convenience. For example, some people feel more comfortable talking to peers from home.

It is also tricky or even impossible to leave the house with some health conditions. Online conversations can be an excellent alternative to physical meetings, even in such cases. And one can still enjoy all the health benefits of social interaction.

Collaborative networks

Another example of support groups is caring collaborative networks that people set up to offer each other help when needed.

It could be delivering food to someone, transporting them to the hospital, or merely visiting them.

For example, these have sprung up spontaneously within local communities during the Covid pandemic, such as buying shopping for those who were not allowed to leave their homes.

The initiative fills a gap created because traditional social support through children, neighbors, and religious communities is decreasing.

Joint medical consultations

Yet another variation on support groups is joint medical consultations.

While obviously not appropriate for all individuals and conditions, joint consultations are increasingly used in the U.S. for chronic diseases such as diabetes and breast cancer, and prenatal care.

People who participate in these consultations are generally satisfied because of mutual support and because they discover that they are not the only ones struggling with an issue.

Taking several patients together also allows the physician to spend more time coaching patients.

Source: Nagasawa, et al., Oxytocin-gaze positive loop and the coevolution of human-dog bonds, Science, 2015

Effective in combination with lifestyle changes

Also, the lifestyle interventions of Dr. Ornish use such support groups, along with appropriate diet, exercise, and adequate management of stress.

It is mainly this combined approach that produces outstanding results. Yet Ornish was not so much concerned with curing any disease.

His main goal was to create an environment of trust and free speech; in this way, groups have formed that support each other.

Often, even long after such programs end, participants continue to visit each other and provide mutual support.

This approach fits well with the principle of self-healing power, which occurs spontaneously as long as you create the right conditions.

Source: Ornish, Undo It! How Simple Lifestyle Changes Can Reverse Most Chronic Diseases, 2019

Benefits of contact with animals

We find the benefits of social interaction with humans to a large extent in interaction with animals.

There are dozens of studies that have examined the positive effect of dealing with animals.

Positive effects of interaction with animals

An overview of the main benefits and effects of interaction with animals:

  • Greater trust in others and willingness to help.
  • Several studies suggest a beneficial effect on empathy.
  • Having a dog also encourages exercise. Cardiology patients can be recommended to get a dog. Research shows that walking with a dog is even better than walking alone.
  • Animals act as a kind of catalyst that promotes social behavior. They are therefore used as therapy, especially in people with mental problems.
  • People with pets go to the doctor less often, are incapacitated for fewer days, and take sleep medication less often.
  • Farm pets (especially dogs) also appear to help reduce anxiety, depressive feelings and loneliness.
  • Animals affect various biomarkers such as adrenaline and noradrenaline, two neurotransmitters and hormones that affect heart rate, blood pressure, sugar levels, etc. An effect on different physiological parameters such as heart rate variability has also been observed.
  • Interventions from animals appear to mitigate the stress response, for example, when visiting patients in the hospital with a dog. However, dogs are not always allowed in hospitals for reasons of hygiene.

Source: Nagasawa, et al., Oxytocin-gaze positive loop and the coevolution of human-dog bonds, Science, 2015

Improved mental and physical health

Researchers suspect that contact with a pet leads to an overall improvement in mental and physical health.

It is plausible that the relationship between cause and effect works in two directions:

  • It could be that people who are already in good health are more likely to buy a pet, or
  • that it is indeed the pet that causes the positive effect, not the other way around.

A study concluded that contact with animals has a similar effect to contact with family members.

Incidentally, the effects are even stronger when it comes to your own pet compared to unfamiliar animals that you are not (yet) attached to. Dogs, as well as horses, can play a unique role in this.

Source: Beetz, et al., Psychosocial and Psychophysiological Effects of Human-Animal Interactions: The Possible Role of Oxytocin, Frontiers in Psychology, 2012

Health benefits of social interaction: Conclusion

Our direct real-life relationships with other people can have good and bad health consequences. Therefore, it is essential to cultivate the right environment to enjoy the health benefits of social interaction.

Physical, loving contact such as a hug is very beneficial to our health, especially when while growing up. As we mature, sexual intimacy has the same effect on us.

Social media cannot replace real-life, meaningful relationships, though it can add to them and fulfill a beneficial protective function to our health. However, it must be used in moderation to enjoy the health benefits of social interaction.

Many support groups also exist to bring people together who are in the same boat and deal with the same mental or health issues. Whether these are real-life or online interactions seems to be of lower importance.

Whether it’s contact with animals or people, connection, empathy and compassion are basic needs. If we make sure they are correct, we will help others and ourselves.

About Heather Campbell

As a nutritionist, my field of specialization is science-based nutritional advice but more importantly, it is my goal to share capturing and inspiring stories, examples and solutions which can help plus-size individuals overcome their specific difficulties. Read More