From childhood to adulthood, we’ve been routinely told that exercise and nutrition are the keys to long-term health. But what about our relationships? How do those affect our well-being?
Maybe more than you think.
Whether romantic, platonic, or familial, relationships matter to your health as much as your diet and exercise. Here’s how they impact your well-being:
Healthy relationships lead to longer lives.
For starters, having strong social ties can lengthen your lifespan. This plays out in numerous ways.
Friends, relatives, and even close neighbors are more apt to look after one another when someone is sick or injured. Beyond physical ailment though, they also provide mental and emotional support during hard times, such as divorce, job loss, or the death of a loved one. Through gestures as small as listening to you vent your work frustrations, social connections increase your sense of belonging and self-confidence.
Moreover, the more people in your network, the easier it is to distribute and access health information. For instance, friends may share recommendations on where to get flu shots or when to get a cancer screening.
Friendships may influence weight gain and smoking habits.
In 2007, researchers from Harvard Medical School and the University of California found that weight gain is “socially contagious.” That is, if one person becomes obese, their spouse, siblings, and friends are significantly more likely to become obese as well. In fact, friends of the same gender are 71 percent more likely to gain weight, even if they live far away.
Why does this happen? People within a social network may take part in certain activities together, such as dinner parties or movie marathons with pizza and beer aplenty. On top of that, people tend to compare themselves to others within their network, so seeing your friend put on weight may make your own weight gain feel more acceptable.
The finding doesn’t only apply to weight gain, though. The same researchers found a similar pattern with smoking. However, just as these negative habits can spread socially, so can positive ones. Your friend’s decision to join a gym or drink less may inspire you to do the same.
There’s a difference between loneliness and social isolation—but neither are good for you.
Here’s the difference: Loneliness refers to the feeling of isolation (hence the ability to feel lonely in a crowded room), while social isolation describes an objective lack of social connections. For instance, someone who prefers to spend most of their time on their own may be socially isolated but not lonely. Regardless, in spite of the distinction, neither bode well for your long-term health.
Studies show that social isolation is connected to a higher risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke, and suicide. The effects of loneliness aren’t too far off, as feeling lonely can lead to your body producing more cortisol, the hormone activated under stressful conditions. When produced in excess, this “stress hormone” can lead to fatigue, high blood pressure, and heart disease.
Relationship quality matters.
Of course, it’s important to note that relationship quality matters. That is, an abusive marriage or relationship doesn’t have the same health benefits as a positive relationship—in fact, a hostile relationship impacts your health adversely.
In a study of married couples, those that showed more hostility recovered more slowly from physical wounds than less hostile couples, taking as much as two days longer to heal. Other research also shows that partners in unhappy marriages have a higher risk for cardiovascular disease and unsurprisingly, are more susceptible to depression and poor mental health.
As research shows, your social health is just as vital to your well-being as your physical health. With that in mind, it’s important to nurture and invest in relationships with others, whether by setting more time aside for loved ones or seeking out opportunities to make new friends. That could include scheduling regular meals and phone calls with friends and relatives, or joining interest groups and clubs in your local community. On the flip side, it also means reaching out and providing support to others, regardless of how close you are.