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We are Social Creatures: the Health Impacts of Relationships

by Sydney Bright, MS and Edited by Christopher M. Cirino, DO MPH

A timeless truth is that human beings are social creatures. Our understanding of ancient civilizations and pre-agricultural societies contextualize human life as tribal and community-based. Of course, it is not difficult to observe the importance of social life and the social structures that exist today. Even though some people consider themselves introverted or extroverted, we all have a social life. Though they come in various shapes and forms, we all have the family we are born into and the family we choose. A common goal is to find a significant other: an intimately intense version of a social relationship. The benefits of having this bond from the point of view of joy and life satisfaction are self-evident.

However, there is a significant question to be asked: are there any health benefits to social relationships? 

Social Life: Evolutionary Drive

One way to explore the health benefits of relationships is to contemplate why such biological forces would exist. Is there reason to believe that our bodies would evolve to benefit from social relationships and deteriorate from the lack thereof? 

Imagine you are a human born more than 10,000 years ago, before the agricultural revolution. You, and everyone around you, hunts for and gathers food. You live in a tribal community and depend upon each other to survive. Some hunt together, some gather, others help you when you are sick or teach you skills needed for survival, and so on. Daily life consists of working together with the intention of survival. In many ways, it is not much different than today in that respect.

Now imagine a social outcast: a person who is rude or has no social skills, leading this person with little help in life. The person is alone and without the benefits that social life brings. This person would be more likely to die. Of course, the survival of the fittest influences the forces of evolution. The body adapts in ways that promote survival. More exercise creates better survival, so we evolved to enjoy it. Movement feels good because our bodily evolutionarily developed to incentivize us to exercise.

The joy from social relationships may be the same. In this case, the body may have adapted to promote social relationships to survive. Is there any research evidence for this?

Neolithic Art showing depicting hunters and deer.
Source: Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

Evidence for Benefit of Social Structures

The Harms of Loneliness

To understand how social habits and behavior influence health, one can start by looking at the health outcomes of lonely people. An important point is that living alone and loneliness are not the same thing. In recent times, advanced age has increased the likelihood of living alone; one in four people age 75 and older live alone. The crucial theme may be social connection and the strength of one’s social support system compared to social isolation. Even living with others can lead to feelings of loneliness, if it is dysfunctional.

The human body responds very negatively to social isolation. A meta-analysis review conducted in 2015 showed that more socially isolated people tend to die earlier (Holt-Lunstad et al., 2015). This study did not consider the health status of individuals beforehand, so it is unclear if these results are causative or correlative (Holt-Lunstad et al., 2015).

Studies have shown that being lonely predicts poor health outcomes. Hawkley et al. (2010) showed the association of loneliness to high blood pressure. Jaremka et al. (2014) determined that loneliness correlated to the risk of chronic pain and fatigue symptoms. Additionally, adults are more likely to develop poor health markers, such as weight, blood pressure, cholesterol levels, hemoglobin concentration, or maximum oxygen consumption, when socially isolated as children (Caspi et al., 2006).

Multiple studies have correlated “loneliness” to depression (Cacioppo et al., 2010; Lisa M. Jaremka et al., 2014). One group of researchers knew that depression might also lead to social isolation but found that loneliness predicted depression, not the other way around (Cacioppo et al., 2010).

Benefits of Social Support

Social support dramatically benefits human health. The Harvard Study of Adult Development, a cohort study that began following men longitudinally 80 years ago, showed a strong association to happiness and health in those with close relationships.

Other studies corroborate these findings. Holt-Lunstad et al. (2010) conducted a comprehensive study that found stronger social relationships decreased mortality risk by fifty percent. Similarly other social activities, such as volunteerism and altruism practices were also found to have a mortality benefit (Here is a YHF article on altruism.) Another study showed that those with more significant emotional support were more likely to have better cognitive function (Seeman et al., 2001).

The reasons for the longevity benefits are still unclear. Studies have suggested that caring for others reduces stress (Inagaki & Orehek, 2017). Some researchers have noted how systolic blood pressure, body mass index, waist circumference, and inflammation markers decrease with strong social relationships (Yang et al., 2016). All this research supports that that there is an association between social connectedness and a healthy, longer life. 

social support networks are healthy
Photo by Lisa on Pexels.com

Benefits of Contemplative Dyads

Talking with others can be very therapeutic and comparable to meditation practices in some respect. The concept of a “contemplative dyad” refers to a social interaction where two individuals explain their thoughts and feelings to each other in a structured format. In a 9-month training program known as the ReSource Project, the investigators assessed different contemplative dyads on mental and physical health-related outcomes (Singer et al., 2015). 

  • One condition in the study was the effect dyad, where two people listened and spoke about their feelings, body sensations, and a gratitude-eliciting situation they experienced that day to mimic a partner-based loving-kindness meditation (Kok & Singer, 2017). 
  • The second dyad was one of perspective. Each person describes current situations from different “parts” of themselves, which promotes observing events without automatically reacting to them (Kok & Singer, 2017). 
  • The third condition was a control, where someone practiced mindfulness meditation alone (Kok & Singer, 2017). 

The study found that the effect dyad cultivated empathy, gratitude, and an improved ability to deal with emotions (Kok & Singer, 2017). The perspective dyad improved cognitive perspective-taking to the self and others (Kok & Singer, 2017).

Both approaches led to increased social connectedness (Kok & Singer, 2017). They were similar to the benefits of meditation in increasing positive affect (Kok & Singer, 2017). Some researchers postulate that the benefits from these social dyads are comparable to meditation as they increase parasympathetic dominance in the body, indicated by the observed increase in heart rate variability (HRV) (Bornemann et al., 2019). Increased HRV is a sign that these dyads are both emotionally and similarly beneficial to overall physical health. 

Polyvagal Theory

Our social, mental, and physical wellness correlates to vagus nerve tone in our body’s regulatory nervous system, known as the autonomic nervous system (ANS). The vagus nerve is part of the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) branch. The opposing mechanism is the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), commonly referred to as the “fight, flight or freeze” response. The SNS is essential evolutionarily for a danger response. Imagine if a saber tooth tiger were chasing you!

When the SNS activates, the adrenal gland produces the hormones adrenalin, nor-adrenalin, and cortisol, devoting much of the body’s available energy to the functions immediately required for survival. We still need the SNS for exercise, infections, or when we face other acute stressors in daily life. However, with chronic stress, ongoing activation of the SNS is detrimental to an individual’s health.

fight and flight
Photo by Yaroslav Shuraev on Pexels.com

Conversely, when an individual is safe, the PNS activates and helps with digestion and other crucial bodily functions. Some refer to the PNS as the “rest and digest” system. An essential aspect of improving health is to learn how to engage the parasympathetic nervous system. 

Stephen W. Porges is famous for the creation of the Polyvagal Theory. The theory states that the ANS is evolutionarily related to social behavior’s emotional and affective process (Porges, 1998). Additionally, the Ventral Vagal Complex is implicated in complex social interaction (Porges, 1998). In short, Porges theorized that a greater vagal tone leads to more significant pro-social behaviors (Porges, 2007).  

Therefore, the relationship between social health and physical health is a two-way street: as previously discussed, social interaction may increase vagal tone, which would, in turn, increase pro-social behavior as indicated in the ReSource Project (Bornemann et al., 2019; Kok & Singer, 2017). In other words, social dialogue and interactions relax our bodies. 

Additionally, increased vagal tone achieved through various health lifestyle practices such as meditation may improve pro-social behavior and generate stronger social relationships. Being relaxed makes us more friendly and charismatic. Therefore, proper health and a healthy social life feed off one another, improving one’s life in many ways. 

Takeaways: No matter who you are, find someone to talk to.

We all live different lives and have varying interest for social engagement. Nonetheless, we are not alone, and nor should we be. Our bodies evolved to be social. Socialization plays a crucial role in our healthy development and sustained health throughout life. When reflecting upon healthy behaviors, do not forget to include a social life as a crucial component. Talk to someone when you could use some emotional support. Find friends, families, or significant others to confide in and explore the deep questions of life and ourselves. Don’t forget to be open and talk!

Additionally, when interacting with others, remember that their social behaviors reflect the state of their inner health and well-being. For example, if somebody is rude or unpleasant, recognize that this is partly due to their life experiences and internal turmoil. Have compassion, love, and kindness for those around us who are suffering. We are all in this life together.

References

Bornemann, B., Kovacs, P., & Singer, T. (2019). Voluntary upregulation of heart rate variability through biofeedback is improved by mental contemplative training. Scientific Reports9(1), 1–13. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-019-44201-7

Cacioppo, J. T., Hawkley, L. C., & Thisted, R. A. (2010). Perceived social isolation makes me sad: 5-year cross-lagged analyses of loneliness and depressive symptomatology in the Chicago health, aging, and social relations study. Psychology and Aging25(2), 453–463. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0017216

Caspi, A., Harrington, H. L., Moffitt, T. E., Milne, B. J., & Poulton, R. (2006). Socially isolated children 20 years later: Risk of cardiovascular disease. Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine160(8), 805–811. https://doi.org/10.1001/archpedi.160.8.805

Hawkley, L. C., Thisted, R. A., Masi, C. M., & Cacioppo, J. T. (2010). Loneliness Predicts Increased Blood Pressure: 5-Year Cross-Lagged Analyses in Middle-Aged and Older Adults. Psychology and Aging25(1), 132–142. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0017805

Holt-Lunstad, J., Smith, T. B., Baker, M., Harris, T., & Stephenson, D. (2015). Loneliness and Social Isolation as Risk Factors for Mortality: A Meta-Analytic Review. Perspectives on Psychological Science10(2), 227–237. https://doi.org/10.1177/1745691614568352

Holt-Lunstad, J., Smith, T. B., & Layton, J. B. (2010). Social relationships and mortality risk: A meta-analytic review. PLoS Medicine7(7). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1000316

Inagaki, T. K., & Orehek, E. (2017). On the Benefits of Giving Social Support: When, Why, and How Support Providers Gain by Caring for Others. Current Directions in Psychological Science26(2), 109–113. https://doi.org/10.1177/0963721416686212

Kok, B. E., & Singer, T. (2017). Effects of contemplative dyads on engagement and perceived social connectedness over 9 months of mental training a randomized clinical trial. JAMA Psychiatry74(2), 126–134. https://doi.org/10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2016.3360

Lisa M. Jaremka, P., Rebecca R. Andridge, P., Christopher P. Fagundes, P., Catherine M. Alfano, P., Stephen P. Povoski, M., Adele M. Lipari, D., Doreen M. Agnese, M., Mark W. Arnold, M., Farrand, W. B., Lisa D. Yee, M., William E. Carson III, M., Tanios Bekaii-Saab, M., Edward W. Martin Jr, M., Carl R. Schmidt, M., & Janice K. Kiecolt-Glaser, P. (2014). Pain, Depression, and Fatigue: Loneliness as a Longitudinal Risk Factor. Health Psychol.33(9), 948–957. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0034012.Pain

Porges, S. W. (1998). Love: an emergent property of the mammalian autonomic nervous system. Psychoneuroendocrinology23(8), 837–861. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9924740

Porges, S. W. (2007). The polyvagal perspective. Biological Psychology74(2), 116–143. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biopsycho.2006.06.009

Seeman, T. E., Lusignolo, T. M., Albert, M., & Berkman, L. (2001). Social relationships, social support, and patterns of cognitive aging in healthy, high-functioning older adults: MacArthur studies of successful aging. Health Psychology20(4), 243–255. https://doi.org/10.1037/0278-6133.20.4.243

Singer, T., Kok, B. E., Bornemann, B., Bolz, M., & Bochow, C. (2015). The ReSource Project: Background, design, samples, and measurements.

Yang, Y. C., Boen, C., Gerken, K., Li, T., Schorpp, K., & Harris, K. M. (2016). Social relationships and physiological determinants of longevity across the human life span. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America113(3), 578–583. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1511085112

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