How Social Connection Can Improve Your Health

By now most of us understand, at least intuitively, that having meaningful relationships with friends and family is good for our mental health, even if you are a card-carrying introvert. You may also be aware that waking up every day feeling engaged and purposeful is undoubtedly better than the inverse.

But most of us are unaware that the benefits of social connection and life satisfaction extend far beyond good feelings and motivation.

A growing body of evidence suggests our social connections and overall satisfaction might be protective against disease and extend our healthspan — the period of our lives that we are healthy and free from severe illness.

The Benefits of Social Connectivity

A 75-year cohort study focusing on adult development looked at 268 male Harvard students from class years 1939 to 1944 and 456 men from Boston and concluded that having social connections is the single most important predictor of happiness and longevity.

While this study does not imply cause and effect, its findings are no less intriguing given what we know about the physiological effects of positive social interactions.

There are a few mechanisms that may explain this. When we experience a phenomenon called positive resonance, which is just a fancy term for meaningful social interactions, our parasympathetic nervous system, is intensely activated.

That activation lowers our blood pressure and heart rate and protects us from the harmful effects of stress.

Extend this out a bit further, and it’s easy to see why daily, positive social interactions may reduce our risk for chronic disease and increase longevity.

Unfortunately, interpersonal connection through social media doesn’t appear to be a substitute for real human interaction. Preliminary evidence suggests our online behaviors are no substitute for the real thing. In fact, the relationship between social media usage and depression appears to be a dose-dependent one: the more we use, the worse we feel.

The Benefits of Purposeful Engagement

For context, we need to familiarize ourselves with a term often used in longevity research: eudaimonia.

Eudaimonia is the perspective that happiness comes from inherent meaning and purpose and that human nature works to discover that meaning, finding what nourishes and what diminishes it to live a full and deeply satisfying life.

This phenomenon overlaps and contrasts with hedonia, which is the perspective that happiness is characterized by the presence of positive emotions and expressions, and the absence of negative ones.

Both eudaimonia and hedonia can be experienced simultaneously although the former tends to produce a more favorable effect on our epigenome.

The evidence thus far suggests that experiencing purposeful engagement in life and finding a sense of community and belonging helps protect against Alzheimer’s, stroke and heart attack. Eudaimonia appears to have beneficial effects on inflammation and immunity as well.

It also is associated with less activation of the amygdala, the brain’s emotion processing center, and a larger insular cortex, a region of the brain involved in compassion, empathy, and self-awareness.

Translation: experiencing eudaimonia may protect and improve the function of the brain, decrease inflammation, improve immune function and help protect us from some of our most deadly chronic conditions. Not bad!

Getting Practical

Putting these lessons into practice is often easier said than done, but it shouldn’t stop you from trying. Consider spending less time cultivating online social interactions and more time with close friends and family, in the flesh.

If you are a spiritual or religious person, you have a useful tool in your purpose-driven-life toolbox. You can also try to connect with your why – children, family, sport, philanthropic ventures, volunteering, travel, adventure.

These are all potential sources for nourishing inherent meaning and are worth your investment in time. Should you find something that works, the return on that investment may just come in spades.

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