Social Wellness, or Why Friendship Should Be a Health Priority

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.

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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32 thoughts on “Social Wellness, or Why Friendship Should Be a Health Priority”

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  1. “It makes perfect sense, of course, that we have biological hardwiring and incentives for social connectedness.”

    I think that sums it all up. I can see how going against our nature can trigger stress and, therefore, take a toll on our health.

  2. Mark,

    Fantastic post, and I do agree, it’s extremely important! Every Monday I go through a weekly planning process, aligned to my overall goals. Part of this process involves a renewal in 4 categories, physical, social/emotional, mental, and spiritual. Franklin Covey calls it “sharpening the saw,” or maintaining your tools. So for physical, that could be foam rolling, a massage, something like that. for spiritual, I am doing yoga and meditation this week. For mental, I like to read.

    I sat here yesterday and looked at that “social/emotional.” It’s the one spot that was left blank. I have been looking at it all day today. I leave the house at 6am, and return around 7pm. My wife and I have a newborn boy, and two other boys, 18months, and 3.5 years. We are landlocked with the kids for a bit as my wife recovers. I don’t know where to go or what to do to address this exact issue, and it’s a concern for me. We can’t even scehdule a rental movie to watch together, and anything that I do without her is more time for her with the kids alone, which is tough.

    Right now, my social thing is time with my kids, but let’s face it, that’s not EXACTLY what you mean. I am a salesperson so already out 1-2 nights a week.

    Do you have any ideas for a hectic life like this? Sorry to share my life story! on the plus side, I am down 35 pounds since I began exercising and eating primally, and I feel great, in the face of all of the stress.

    I love the site, and I’d love to hear any suggestions that you have. I’m really glad that you are highlighting this!


    1. Hey! Look at you being all social here on the MDA…
      Jim, do have neighbours? Talk to them, hang out… that way your wife can focus on the new one in the comfort of your own home whilst you & the other kids get outside a bit & socialize with a neighbouring “tribe”. Even if you are in your respective yards, jawin’ across the fence, it’s something.
      I work 3 jobs & have to start 6 days a week @ 5:30am. So alot of my social time is @ work. I try to manage a quick word with a neighbour or 2 whenever possible. Going to the store or market once a week is always a social encounter!
      If you commute, find someone to carpool with. If you take transportation, chat with someone next to you…
      possibilties are Endless

  3. Excellent post!

    Fact is humans are social animals and being social has helped us survive and thrive throughout history.

  4. Mark,

    As always, great post. But I have some problems with the title (“Why friendship should be a health priority”). There’s nothing wrong with it, I guess the truth hurts.

    Isn’t it a pity that we (or a lot of us) have to use that language and style, which to me implicates that we (again probably a lot of us) have to plan and schedule our friendships and social contacts?

    And isn’t it also a sign of the times that we actually need researchers to investigate these obvious (although important) things?



    1. Exactly, a clear sign of the times we live in. The problem is that what used to be common knowledge for physical living, is basically lost nowadays – or confined to some very small subcultures like the primal community.

      I would bet you didn’t have to tell anyone 100 years ago that building friendships and regular social interaction was important for your health. It was probably so obvious to everyone that the subject never came up.

      I have to laugh out loud when I hear researchers confirming things like “our conclusion therefore is that real food is indeed healthy because our study proves it,” “exercise helps support health in middle aged women,” and “building relationships may actually help you become happier and healthier – just like our test group demonstrated.”

      It’s our job to re-educate the public…

  5. Sometimes it’s difficult to find people at the similiar ‘level’. Very difficult at times. Hope someone knows what I’m talking about

  6. I think we each have a different level of “connected-ness” we need…I know after being in a social setting for a long time I get worn out and need some time by myself…my son is the opposite, he gets worn out being alone to long and needs social interaction…guess that introvert/extrovert tendency comes into play…we all have our own level of social homeostasis that is right for us!

  7. it’s worth noting that most studies show people don’t reap the health benefits from social interaction that occurs on Facebook and its counterparts. It needs to be face to face.

  8. When my daughter was young, friendships were based around doing things with our kids and “how to parent.” She’s 16 now, and while my husband and daughter are both important (and fun!)companions to me, the friends I’ve more recently met via rock climbing and mountain biking have added a lot to my life. I guess it’s that the roles that have aborbed most of my time and energy (teacher, parent, spouse) are focused on what I can do to help and serve others and attain important goals. With my friends I break that mold completely and become a fellow athlete and outdoorsperson. They need or demand nothing from me except a comrade out to have fun. It becomes more about “what do I have in me”. My friends encourage me to bring it to the next level, and I do the same for them. I guess the real benefit of that is that when the nest is empty and retirement rolls around, I know I there’s another really rich and fun side of life awaiting for me.

  9. Jim,

    I feel for you and your wife. We just added our second to the family a few months ago and are just coming out of that phase bit by bit. Ugh! Hard stuff no matter how you cut it. We kept in basic touch with people by inviting friends over to our place. We just had to accept that the house was going to be a mess and that we couldn’t do anything big like a group dinner. We mostly invited people over for brunch (when the kids were in a good mood) or dessert/drinks after our toddler was in bed and the baby would hopefully be in a decent enough mood that we could socialize.
    Good luck with everything, and hang in there!

  10. I mostly agree about the utility of social networking sites, though I will say that Twitter has made me like certain friends a lot less!

  11. Here in Slovenia, it is rare to see one family in a home, more often there are living three or four generations together. Children don’t always fly from the nest except to grab husbands or wives and bring them back. It was a hard adjustment moving here from New York City where I was a single girl in my apartment with just a roommate, but I have really grown to appreciate the closeness of families and communities, especially in these slim economic times.