How Human Connection Affects Our Health
By Brian Stanton • Updated November 2, 2020
Social, human connection is more imperative for good health than you may think. Here’s a deep look at deep relationships, six of their major health benefits, and how to better connect to the people who matter most in your life. Humans have a fundamental need to connect with others. It’s right up there with the need to eat, drink, and breathe. It’s not surprising, then, that positive social connections cast a warm afterglow on many health metrics, from body composition to blood pressure to immune function. Social support has even been linked to a longer life. At the time of this writing (April 2020), in-person socialization is discouraged in order to keep us safe. Because of this, we need to get creative to maintain our valued relationships. We’ll get to that later. First, let’s cover the basics of human connection, and how this connection benefits our health.
What Is Human Connection?“Connection is the energy,” writes Brené Brown, PhD, LMSW, in her book The Gifts of Imperfection, “that exists between people when they feel seen, heard and valued; when they can give and receive without judgement; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.” The study of connection dates back many decades. In the late 1950s, psychologist Harry Harlow, PhD, found that young rhesus monkeys preferred a soft, cuddly cloth mother to a wire mother, even though the wire mother dispensed food. Food or not, the cuddly mother better simulated the connection a mother provides her child. Many years later, in 1995, the social psychologist Roy Baumeister, PhD, introduced his belongingness hypothesis. Forming relationships, argued Baumeister, is a fundamental drive—and our emotions exist, in part, to guide our bonds with other humans. And when these bonds are healthy, the health benefits are hard to miss. Read on.
6 Health Benefits of Human ConnectionWhen you look at the science, one thing is clear: Social connection benefits our health. Here are six examples.
1. Weight managementAs it turns outs, social support inversely correlates with BMI. Most people rely upon body mass index (BMI)—or weight divided by height—to track body composition; BMI’s ranging from 18.5 to 25 are considered healthy. Now, research shows that more social support is linked to healthier weights on average. In a 2014 Journal of School Health study of 13,428 adolescents, children who felt more socially connected in their school environments tended to have lower BMI’s. Another 2013 study of older Koreans found that the density of social networks, and the frequency of communication within those networks, positively correlated with healthier weights.
2. Mental healthQuality relationships are the foundation of a happy life. We don’t need science to tell us that. Nonetheless, scientists have studied the link between human connection and mental health fairly extensively. In one 2014 study, for instance, Finnish researchers found that those with tighter social networks reported less loneliness and more positive emotions in their daily lives.
3. Stress reductionCortisol is a hormone your adrenals release during times of stress. Measuring your cortisol levels, then, is an effective way to gauge your stress. Less cortisol, less stress. That’s where human connection comes in. In one study of breast cancer patients in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine, better social support was linked to lower cortisol levels. Connection can also reduce stress during extreme times. People who suffered head injuries—a 2012 British study found—were less likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) if they joined support groups during their hospital stay.
4. Heart healthMultiple studies have shown that human connection helps lower blood pressure—key for maintaining a healthy heart. In one interesting experiment, researchers found that the presence of a friend helped reduce blood pressure during a “psychological challenge.” What was this challenge, you ask? Everyone’s favorite: Mental arithmetic.
5. Immune functionBelieve it or not, human connection can strengthen the immune system. Several studies have found that social support predicts how robust the immune response will be. Those with richer social networks, for instance, have shown greater resistance to the common cold. Social support has also been linked to the antibody response following the influenza (flu) vaccine. More support, more antibodies, more immunity.
6. LongevityIf you want to live a longer, healthier life—it makes sense to prioritize human connection. According to a 2010 meta-analysis of over 300,000 people, good social relationships were just as important for longevity as the avoidance of excessive smoking or drinking! What might explain this? For one, those with strong social support are more likely to engage in healthy behaviors like exercise, proper nutrition, and stress management. Strong human connection also fosters positive emotions, which in turn positively impact the body. Finally, don’t forget the five benefits we talked about earlier! They likely have an anti-aging effect too.
How To Foster More ConnectionLike any aspect of health, you need to work at social, human connection. For some, it comes more naturally than others. But whatever your social situation, you can take steps towards deeper, more fulfilling relationships. Here are some ways to encourage connection in your life:
- Focus on quality. You don’t need dozens of good relationships. Even one deep connection pays dividends. In times like these, with limited social opportunities, double down on the relationships that matter most.
- Reconsider toxic relationships. If possible, avoid relationships that detract from your happiness. Just as positive relationships bring health benefits, negative ones can have health consequences.
- Get a pet. Humans have enjoyed the company of animals for thousands of years. Research suggests this companionship promotes mental well-being, and can also stimulate other healthy behaviors like exercise. Even a pet fish can reduce stress!
- Use technology wisely. If you can’t be there physically, video calls, phone calls, online classes, and even emails can nourish your need for connection. It’s important to remember, however, that our smart devices were designed to be addictive. So while our iPhone can be a useful social tool, it can also distract us from spending real quality time with loved ones.
- Be physical. Touching releases the hormone oxytocin, a pleasurable chemical that deepens our bond to other humans. If you’re currently unable to experience the joy of touch (namely, due to social distancing) remember that these measures are temporary. In the meantime, focus on the other items above. Work on your most important relationships (maybe one is a pet), and use technology to enhance, not detract from, your interactions.
April 22, 2020
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