The Company We Keep
The company we keep…
Have you ever noticed that people with supportive families and friends are generally happier and more successful in life? Friends can exert a measurable and ongoing influence on your behavior and, consequently, your health. You know how much better you feel when, on a bad day, you call on a friend who cares and with whom you share a meaningful conversation. Wouldn’t you agree that such friends are better than any drug or anti-aging supplement? Indeed, our well-being is influenced by the company we keep.
Human beings are innately social creatures who thrive in supportive environments. We all need other human beings to affirm and validate our experiences and feelings. When you share personal feelings with someone with whom you are comfortable, the ‘self-disclosure’ can significantly relieve any stress and depression you might be suffering.
Your social network is not the same as essential social support. Your social network is the number of people you interact with, including social media friends. Your social support is more importantly about the quality of your friends. A meaningful social connection is close, special, and has a significant impact on your life. Casual relationships are fine, but they come and go. A meaningful social connection can be a valuable source of advice, motivation, or assistance when you need it.
A vast body of research in this area repeatedly shows the powerful benefits of social interactions. Emma Seppala of the Stanford Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education and author of the 2016 book The Happiness Track, writes, “People who feel more connected to others have lower levels of anxiety and depression. Moreover, studies show they also have higher self-esteem, greater empathy for others, are more trusting and cooperative.”
Studies find that positive social networks can influence obesity, anxiety, and even lower our risk of dementia. People who chronically lack social contacts are more likely to experience elevated levels of stress and inflammation. These, in turn, may undermine well-being in most bodily systems, including the brain. If you are a person who connects with others, you are more likely to perform better on tests of memory and other cognitive skills. Science demonstrates that social interactions activate the four primary chemicals in the brain that affect happiness: dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, and endorphins. It behooves us to connect and give a boost to our overall physical and mental health.
Many health benefits may appear subtle, yet the uplift in mood and health is tangible. A conversation that introduces hope and joy into the morning may lead you to engage in physical activity, healthy food selection, or further proactive social relationships later in the day or week. Similarly, you note an easing of concern when you engage and communicate openly with a physician about health questions. If you are an older adult who occasionally lags into inactivity and sadness, you would benefit from social service agency volunteers who help maintain landscaping or home maintenance, or encourage you to connect with friends.
Social support and living longer
We all want longevity. People with more social support tend to live longer than those who are more isolated, even when accounting for your overall level of health Social engagement is associated with a stronger immune system, especially if you are an older adult. You are then better able to fight off colds, the flu, and even some types of cancer. A study by Lisa F. Berkman and S. Leonard Syme followed 7,000 men and women in Alameda County, California, and found that the risk of death among men and women with the fewest social ties was more than twice as high as the risk for adults with the most social ties.
Social support and coping with stress
Stress can lead to serious health consequences ranging from reduced immunity to increased risk of heart disease. If you find that you suffer from self-doubt, depression, or a feeling of aloneness, surround yourself with people who are caring and supportive. You are more likely to shake the self-doubts, feel less alone, and see yourself as capable and able to deal with the stresses that life brings.
Social support and motivation
Isolation interferes with motivation and moving toward your goals. You might be trying to achieve a challenging goal, such as losing weight or quitting smoking. Give yourself an opportunity to get help from people who experience similar challenges. Sharing experiences and giving and receiving empathy, understanding, support, and a sense of community, can increase your motivation and keep you on track toward your goals.
Ways to boost social engagement
You may notice that many of these activities also provide cognitive engagement or physical exercise – or both. In previous postings, we shared research about the additional benefits to brain health that come from connecting cognitive and physical activities. By choosing social activities that are both physically and cognitively engaging, we are practicing integrative health. All of my writings and teachings support an integrative approach to wellness involving the whole person - mind, body, and spirit. Here are some ideas to get you started.
- Use Skype or Facetime to catch up with family and friends from a distance.
- Walk through your neighborhood and make a point of stopping to say hello to people you meet.
- Babysit your grandkids or help them with homework.
- Sign up for a class at your local recreation center, library, or university.
- Attend religious services at your church, synagogue, or temple.
- Sing in a choir or play music in a group.
- Volunteer at your favorite charity organization.
- Visit a museum with a friend and chat about what you see.
- Participate in a neighborhood or community group.
- Play a group sport like lawn bowling, golf, or croquet.
- Have a friend or family member over for coffee or tea.
- Play cards or board games with others.
- Exercise with a friend by walking, swimming, or going to the gym together.
Regardless of how you go about connecting with others, remember that it should be in a way that is enjoyable to you, so that you will be sure to do it often. Focus on real-world friends more often than remote Facebook friends. Allow yourself to linger over coffee with a friend, set aside time to connect with family, and take care of yourself so you can Feel better, Function better, LIVE better!