Social Relationships and Your Health

Whatever you may think of the Hallmark cards and heart-shaped chocolate clichés, Valentine’s Day and the accompanying “love is all you need” glow of February are great reminders that the relationships in our lives are worth being celebrated. Aside from just making us feel good, our relationships may also be helping to keep us healthy. For example, people who are more socially isolated or lonely are more likely to develop diseases like cardiovascular disease, visit the doctor more often, and report that they have worse health than people who are more socially connected.

These effects of social connection are not limited to just physical health either. In fact, loneliness is related to things like depression, social anxiety, and eating disorders, and lonely people are also more likely to develop cognitive disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease.

Perhaps the most convincing evidence of all that being social is good for your health is that being isolated increases your chance of dying. Indeed, being lonely increases your chance of dying as much as other more well-known risk factors like smoking or being obese.

So, it looks like there is convincing evidence that being social can keep you healthy and even stave off death. But when we talk about being socially isolated, what are we talking about? Are we talking about someone who lives alone and doesn’t have many close friends? Or are we talking about a person who is surrounded by people but still feels lonely?

In fact, there are lots of ways we can look at the concept of being socially isolated. We can look at objective social isolation, which is trying to capture how big people’s social networks are and how much they are in contact with the people in their network. This could involve asking people things like how many people they are close to, whether they live alone, or their participation in various social activities.

We could also ask people about their perceptions of how socially disconnected they are by asking things like how often they feel alone, isolated from others, or not close to others. These kinds of questions tap into people’s sense of subjective social isolation or their feelings of loneliness.

Some people have argued that subjective social isolation is more important for health, while others have found that objective social isolation measures are more predictive of poor health outcomes. At least for mortality, it looks like it may not really matter how we look at it. A recent study published in Perspectives on Psychological Science found that both objective and subjective measures of social isolation are related to a significantly increased likelihood of dying.

While there are decades of work linking social isolation with poor health outcomes, what is less clear is why these links exist. That is, why are our social relationships so good for our health?

Some research has shown that loneliness is related to health behaviors that may ultimately lead to poor health outcomes. For example, lonely individuals are more likely to smoke and drink, have poor sleep quality, and be obese.

There are also some proposed biological mechanisms to explain the effects of social isolation on health. Inflammation, which has been linked to many physical and mental health conditions, may be one such biological pathway. Indeed, lonely individuals have elevated markers of inflammation, and conversely, heightened inflammation can lead to increases in feelings of social disconnection.

In summary, loneliness can not only be devastating, but it may also have consequences for your health. If you happen to be feeling lonely while reading this, don’t despair quite yet; there may be some good news.

Researchers have tested a variety of interventions to see if they improve loneliness, and they have found a variety of successful strategies to improve feeling socially disconnected that don’t just involve saying “go find more friends.” For example, mindfulness meditation can lead to reductions in both loneliness and inflammation.

Getting a pet may also be helpful. Studies have found that animal-assisted therapy (that is, regular visits from a dog) can lead to decreases in loneliness.

So, although the days of putting handwritten Valentines and candy on schoolmates’ desks may be long behind you, it is certainly worth your time to find other ways to invest in and maintain your relationships with others…. maybe even including your pets.