Since this is posting on Valentine’s Day, there seems no other option than talking about love. And while romantic love keeps the music industry alive, and probably Hallmark cards too, I don’t think it is the most important kind of love. We can live without romantic love, but we cannot live without love from others, or love FOR others.
The love and support of others, friends and family, is invaluable to our mental and physical health. Numerous studies show that people with strong social connections live longer and healthier lives. Dr. Robert Waldinger, a Harvard psychiatrist, says “Good, close relationships appear to buffer us from the problems of getting old.”
One study asked people to look up from the base of a steep hill (26% grade) while carrying a heavy backpack. The researchers asked the participants to estimate how steep the hill was. The people who were doing this with a friend reported it to be less steep and less of a challenge. And, the longer they had known the friend, the less steep they thought the hill was. How cool is that!
The Dangers of Low Social Connections
Another important study showed that low social connection is a greater detriment to health than obesity, smoking, and high blood pressure. Conversely, people with strong social connections tend to have stronger immune systems, less depression, and higher self esteem. But the opposite is also true: with low connections, people tend to have more anxiety and act in anti-social ways. And it tends to be a vicious cycle: the more anxiety and anti- social behavior, the less social connections.
A study of nearly 3,000 nurses with breast cancer found that women with few or no close friends were four times more likely to die than women with 10 or more friends. Interestingly, the amount of contact with a friend wasn’t associated with survival. Just having friends you could talk to was protective. Having a spouse wasn’t associated with survival (so there, romantic love!)
The Benefits of Connections
Having close friends can lead to other health benefits: friends appear to protect our brains, possibly by engaging them more. Other benefits include logistical support for when you are injured or sick, and providing positive emotional feedback when you are emotionally down. In fact, even the amount of exercise you get can be influenced by your friends. There is an adage: “You are the average of the 5 people you spend the most time with.”
Is Loneliness a Problem in America?
Loneliness is on the rise in America. A study in 2004 found that 25% of Americans felt they had no one with whom to share a personal problem. And, it turns out, loneliness is one of the top reasons people seek out counseling.
Some people are naturally outgoing and seem to have no trouble making friends, but if you are more introverted, don’t fret! First, you don’t need tons of friends for health benefits, you just need a few people whom you can talk to when things are rough (or good!) While social media friends can help, it is the in-person connections that seem to matter more. And putting yourself in social settings such as volunteering can help.
Ways to Make More Connections
If you feel like your social life could use a boost, here are some suggestions to help:
Volunteer in your community
Join a Meet-Up group
Join a group at your church (or try out a new church if you don’t have one and feel inclined!)
Take a class at your local community college
Try out a new class at your gym or just start a conversation in the locker room
Go to a networking event
Make this yummy recipe (or any other) and bring some to your neighbor!