Reading club; Tuesday card games; progressive dinners; Saturday morning golf; summer barbeques; talks over coffee, cocktails, racquetball, quilting, dog walking or maybe just over the phone. The letters, emails, Facebook comments, the hugs, high fives or just hellos. What comes to mind when you think of your friends?
Friends, both new and old, close and far flung, hold a special place in our sentiments. We value the history we have with them, the perspective they bring, the support they offer, the stories they tell, the interests we share. Without a doubt, we’d say, they play an essential part in our lives. We’re better people, happier people as a result of our friendships, but maybe – it turns out – we’re healthier too?
For years researchers have talked about the dimension of “social wellness” in an overall wellness model, the premise that well-being develops through continuing self-actualization in a number of key areas, including socialization.
Beyond this theoretical model, however, recent research suggests that our social endeavors and relationships appear to have very concrete and significant impact on our physical health. Studies have linked strong social connectedness with measures as varied and dramatic as motor skill retention, cancer survival, general immune function, memory function preservation, and overall longevity. On the flip side, social isolation has been connected with a higher risk for Alzheimer’s disease and heart disease.
And since much of the social connectedness research focuses on later life, it’s important to point out the “power of relationships” in overall happiness and “’successful aging’” as suggested by the famous longitudinal Grant Study. According to the head of the Grant Study, George Vaillant, the subjects’ close relationships were one of two variables most influential in “late-life adjustment.”
Researchers postulate many possibilities for the protective role of social connectedness. Those with close relationships are probably more likely to receive encouragement to take better care of themselves and seek out medical care when needed. But stress itself, they say, likely plays a significant role also. Social relationships, particularly friendships, reduce stress and its chronic impact on our physical and mental health. Friendships, in particular, provide a key outlet for our emotions, a meaningful network of support, and – in the case of old friendships – a unique mirror for our lives – the ups and downs, challenges and achievements. Friendships can give us a fresh perspective and emotional space from our problems. They can also ground us through the trajectory of our experiences and other primary relationships.
It makes perfect sense, of course, that we have biological hardwiring and incentives for social connectedness. In Grok’s day it made sense to live in community. Social living offered better protection from predators, higher odds of hunting success, and enhanced “group” care for offspring. Those who chose to live in bands were simply more likely to survive. The ability and desire to share life with others was undoubtedly selected for and passed down. It eventually came naturally, instinctively.
Flash forward to today’s world, though, and we can find ourselves fish out of water. Life now allows for a very unsocial existence. Individual homes and garages ensure that we needn’t meet our neighbors. Online ordering permits us to avoid public shopping. Television and CDs mean we can conveniently enjoy entertainment in the seclusion of our own homes. Modern city planning often results in living environments devoid of public parks, promenades, pedestrian city centers or even sidewalks. Add to this picture the fact that we’re increasingly a nation of movers and up-rooters, finding ourselves far from the families and social networks of our youth. We often trade stability for opportunity, and in doing so we’re forced to make and remake our social networks sometimes multiple times during our lives. If we were able to make lasting connections in previous locations, the pace of life often makes it difficult to maintain those friendships from afar.
But in this regard modern media may not be all bad. Email, personal web pages, and social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter actually enhance our social connectedness by making it easier to keep in touch with those we can’t see on a regular basis. Ultimately, it’s likely the depth of connections rather than proximity that matters when it comes to friendships, as Jeffrey Zaslow concludes in his book, “The Girls From Ames: A Story of Women and a 40-Year Friendship,” a study of eleven women who grew up together and kept in close touch over the years.
Finally, it’s important to note that social fulfillment is a subjective experience. Some people thrive with smaller social circles and/or levels of social experience. They are often the same people who better adapt to increasing social isolation as they age. Although social isolation shows an independent negative impact on physical health, loneliness – the perceived lack of interaction rather than the level of interaction itself – apparently drives the negative impact on mental health. It appears that we each operate with a different barometer when it comes to personal happiness and fulfillment, but our primal physical selves also impose their own framework for social well-being.
So, what’s your take on the role of relationships – particularly friendships – in overall health? What has your experience and reading suggested? Weigh in with your comments, and thanks for reading.