Social Relationships and Health: Friendship and Love as Vitamins

Heather Campbell
 min read

Social relationships and health are crucial to one another.

Social Relationships and Health: Friendship and Love as VitaminsHaving contact with people who are energized does wonders.

As a whole, social contacts are just as crucial to your health as eating healthily, adequate exercise and not smoking. Social relationships and health go hand in hand, and this is not just a gut feeling. Science has proven how it is even more important than other lifestyle choices.

Continue reading to find out what it’s really like to have more social contacts, and what you can do if you want more or closer contacts in your own life.

Social relationships and health: Introduction

A study shows that social isolation and loneliness are incredibly bad for your health.

This study sought to answer what most reduces the risk of dying.

  • Number one turned out to be “social integration”: how often you interact with others.
  • Number two was “close relationships,” which is about whether you are close with friends and family.
  • Not smoking, exercising a lot, or having a healthy weight all had less effect.
  • Thus, a lack of social contact is more harmful than smoking.

Perhaps this is one of the reasons why women live longer on average than men: they are more likely to maintain their social contacts well.

(Source: American psychologist Julianne Holt-Lunstad)

Being alone proves unhealthy

As it turns out, it doesn’t matter if you actually feel lonely.

Those who live alone, and have few or no contacts, may have chosen to do so and be content with it.

Yet even this self-chosen loneliness proves detrimental to health and increases your mortality rate just as much.

And this is certainly not just the case with the elderly. Social isolation has the most significant effect on mortality risk in middle-aged people.

Another study, triggered by the above discoveries, investigated a so-called Blue Zone in Sardinia.

A Blue Zone is an area where people regularly live to be 100 years old or older.

This study found that every centenarian there has a group of close friends and family around them. So friendship is really healthy!

The findings? Invest not only in friendships but also in contact with neighbors. Social relationships and health are essentially linked.

(Sources: American psychologists Julianne Holt-Lunstad and Susan Pinker)

Benefits of social contact

What follows are some scientifically proven benefits of social contact:

  • Those surrounded by a close social network are twice as likely to grow old than those who are lonely.
  • The chance of dying after a heart attack is reduced when you have many friends and little stress.
  • Having lots of social contacts when you’re young and middle-aged lowers your chances of developing dementia.

(Sources: Berkman, 1979; Ruberman, 1984; Sommerlad, 2019)

Good relationships are good for our health

The prestigious Harvard University began tracking 268 students and their offspring in 1938 to look at their mental and physical health.

The researchers stated that ‘Our relationships and how happy we are in them say a surprising amount about our health.’

Good bonds with others protect us from dissatisfaction, help slow mental and physical decline, and are better predictors of a long and happy life than our genes.

Tip: Social contacts are just one of the 15 tips to lead a healthier life in our other post Tips for a Healthy Lifestyle: 15 Top Tips to Improve Your Health

How social relationships affect your health

There are several explanations for why social relationships and health are intrinsically linked.

The first is the direct effect that friends and family can have on, for example, your eating and drinking habits, whether or not you smoke, the amount of exercise you get.

They can call you out on it, and you can feel more responsible for it yourself because now people are counting on you.

Having close relationships can incentivize living healthier and giving up bad habits. This, in turn, affects your blood pressure and immune system.

Another explanation is that a good social network provides a buffer against other harmful influences such as stress.

For example, stress hits isolated people harder, if only because they can’t talk about it with others or can barely talk about it. After all, a shared sorrow is a sorrow halved.

In addition, feeling connected to others gives you self-esteem and a purpose in life, which is an essential motivation for healthy living.

Oxytocin and dopamine make us feel good

Social interactions release all kinds of neurotransmitters that make us feel good.

Face-to-face social contact drives up the amounts of oxytocin and dopamine in your body, hormones that reduce stress and pain.

It increases your chances of surviving breast cancer or a stroke and supports your immune system.

(Source: TED talk by American psychologist Susan Pinker)

Cuddling to produce oxytocin

Touching someone lovingly or being touched lovingly (if you want to, of course) triggers the production of oxytocin.

Oxytocin is also called the cuddle hormone and makes you feel good immediately.

It makes you calmer, happier, and less anxious and weakens the tendency to keep others at a distance. Or in other words, it helps you make contacts.

Some examples of ways to boost oxytocin levels in your body:

  • stroking,
  • cuddling (with your pet),
  • making love,
  • being massaged or massaging,
  • sitting against someone.

Touch the people you care about if that is ok. Hug your partner in passing, your child, your pet, or put a hand on a friend’s arm.

How much social contact do you need to be healthy?

How many social contacts do you need to have a health benefit from it?

This is not yet easy to say and scientifically not sufficiently explored.

Loneliness is a subjective feeling. What do you personally find enjoyable; how many contacts and how intense?

It is especially important that the contacts which you do have also mean something to you.

“The more, the better” is certainly not a good answer to how many social contacts you need. It’s about how involved you feel in those social interactions.

Feeling part of a social group or multiple groups is vital to your health.

This does not mean membership in clubs, although they can have that effect just fine, but, for example, whether you feel and identify yourself as an American, nature lover, fisherman, runner, resident of a particular neighborhood, etc.

However, it is not clear why belonging to such groups is so important. Still, it possibly has to do with sharing something bigger, certain norms and values, and a goal.

Moreover, suppose you feel connected to the neighborhood, for example. In that case, you are also more likely to seek out contact with neighbors and participate when there are neighborhood activities.

Loneliness doesn’t just affect the elderly either. Many young people also feel lonely, even though you might not expect it, because of their dexterity with social media.

Incidentally, feelings of loneliness can be significantly increased by, e.g., measures during an epidemic (think corona lockdowns).

(Source: J. Jetten, Professor of Social Psychology, University of Queensland, Australia)

Loneliness has several causes

Everyone feels alone sometimes, even if they have family, relatives, and friends.

The feeling of loneliness can be caused by not feeling truly connected (at the time) to the people around you.

Or because you feel like you can’t express yourself or that others will disapprove of you if you really say what you think/feel/believe.

You may also feel that you do not count, are not seen or heard, or are not worthwhile. A lack of self-confidence can reinforce this feeling.

Practical reasons can also play a role in feeling alone: layoffs, a move, moving into a room, children flying out, retirement…

Lack of money can also isolate you, as well as the individualization of our society.

The tricky thing about loneliness is that it often sends you into a downward spiral.

You feel bad. It makes you more insecure, so you start avoiding social contact and feel even more lonely.

Breaking that negative spiral is important.

Do you feel lonely? Visit a store or coffee shop. Movement and (brief) contact with others can break through your negative feelings.

How to have more social contacts

First and foremost, you yourself must recognize that you could use some more friends and would like some more intimate contact with your family or people in the neighborhood.

Make room for that feeling for a moment. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. Almost everyone suffers from it at one time or another.

Next, you need to take this realization seriously, just as seriously as being overweight, sleeping poorly, or lacking exercise.

Finally, take action. This can be done in several ways.

Identify which groups you already belong to

For example, you can first map out all your contacts and groups you belong to.

How many people in your community do you have relationships with, and how often do you see them?

Perhaps you are part of a fine group but have not invested much in it until now.

Think about what you would like to do

Next, look at what actions you could and would like to take.

Maybe you’ve been considering joining a dance club for years but need to give yourself a nudge.

Formulate steps: I will email them, call them, or visit them to be informed. Then schedule those steps by putting them in your calendar or on the calendar.

A group activity such as walking in a hiking club is always a good idea. You get to know new people and move around more often. So that’s a double win for your health!

Seek help if you’re having a hard time being social

If you do not succeed (enough) in boosting your social contacts yourself, you can also turn to the family doctor.

This person can, for example, help you with suggestions in the area of meeting people, sports, and culture in the neighborhood or refer you to a welfare coach.

You can meet with such a wellness coach two or three times and together map out which existing activities and clubs in the neighborhood suit you.

The advantage is that they have a good overview of the range of activities in the neighborhood/municipality and can easily direct you to them.

By the way, this is not only applicable to somewhat lonely people but to anyone who is not comfortable in their own skin.

Conclusion

Social connections and good relationships have a proven positive impact on our health.

Social interactions release all kinds of neurotransmitters that make us feel good.

Hormones such as oxytocin and dopamine reduce stress and pain and are good for our immunity.

Exactly how much social contact is enough varies from person to person and cannot be answered so unequivocally.

What matters most is the quality of your social contacts rather than their quantity.

Everyone suffers from loneliness from time to time, but fortunately, it is not that difficult to do something about it.

If you still have trouble accomplishing this on your own, don’t hesitate to enlist the help of a professional.

Related: Sometimes we all lack motivation to live more healthily. This article can help put things into perspective and regain that sense of meaning: Why Living a Healthy Lifestyle and What to Focus On?

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