Lovely image by Stephanie Sunderland
Humans are hardwired for connection. It’s in our biology. “From the time we are born, we need connection to thrive emotionally, physically, spiritually and intellectually. A decade ago the idea that we’re ‘wired for connection’ might have been perceived as touchy-feely or New Age. Today we know that the need for connection is more than a feeling or a hunch. It’s hard science. Neuroscience to be exact.”1
Think of what you hold most dear in your life. Loved ones and relationships are one of the first things that come up. We know intuitively that strong relationships and social ties enhance our lives in many ways. They provide a sense of companionship, love, joy and belonging. And they add an incredible layer of depth and meaning to our journey.
But few of us fully realize the powerful ways strong relationships and social ties positively impact our health–physically, mentally and spiritually. And conversely, most of us aren’t aware of the extent to which a lack of strong relationships or poor quality relationships contributes to increased risk of illness and poor health outcomes. In fact the scientific community is just starting to truly understand the profound impacts of relationships on our health.
“Social connections…influence our long-term health in ways every bit as powerful as adequate sleep, a good diet, and not smoking. Dozens of studies have shown that people who have satisfying relationships with family, friends and their community are happier, have fewer health problems and live longer.”2 And who doesn’t want to be happier, healthier, and live longer?!
The Impact of Relationships on Our Health
So what exactly are the impacts of strong relationships, or a lack there of, on our health?
“One study, which examined data from more than 309,000 people, found that a lack of strong relationships increased the risk of premature death from all causes by 50% — an effect on mortality risk roughly comparable to smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day, and greater than obesity and physical inactivity.”2 Pause for a moment and really take that in. This research supports that we are more likely to die from any given cause if we are lacking strong, supportive relationships. It’s a truly profound finding.
In addition to this, a number of recent review articles show compelling and consistent evidence that link low quantity or quality of social relationships with a number of health implications including: the development and worsening of heart disease, recurrent heart attacks, high blood pressure, developing cancer, delays in cancer recovery, and slower wound healing.3
Conversely, compelling and consistent research supports that people with strong and thriving relationships in their lives experience:
- Better mental health
- Fewer physical health problems overall
- Better function and survival rates when they do develop illnesses
- Reduced incidence of coughs and colds
- Reduced stress and release of stress hormones
- Faster wound healing
- Improved post-surgical recovery
- Improved immune, cardiovascular, and endocrine function
- Longer lives
If we could put that kind of powerful medicine in a pill form everyone would be taking it, it’d be all over the news and it would be considered an earth shattering breakthrough in medicine. Who knew this powerful medicine was within our reach all along?
But again, it’s not just having relationships and social ties that counts. “The quality of our relationships matters. For example, one study found that midlife women who were in highly satisfying marriages and marital-type relationships had a lower risk for cardiovascular disease compared with those in less satisfying marriages. Other studies have linked disappointing or negative interactions with family and friends with poorer health. One intriguing line of research has found signs of reduced immunity in couples during especially hostile marital spats.”2 A worthy reason for investing time and energy in nourishing our relationships.
A Worthy Investment
After decades of research on relationships John Gottman, PhD and renowned marriage researcher, wrote: “ I often think that if fitness buffs spent just 10% of their weekly workout time–say 20 minutes a day– working on their marriage instead of their bodies, they would get three times the health benefits they would derive from an exercise class or the treadmill.”4
So why don’t we all take the necessary time to nourish our relationships? Because like any other aspect of our health, it requires an investment of time and energy. And we have so many demands on our time and attention. It can be challenging to carve out the generous space needed to enhance our relationship skills and to invest in our most valued relationships. But as the current research confirms, it’s some of the most important and rewarding work we’ll do in our lifetime.
It doesn’t need to be a herculean feat though. Start small. Do one extra thing to nourish an important relationship today. Pick up that relationship book you’ve been meaning to read. Listen to a podcast on building trust. Wake up 10 minutes early so you can be present with your loved one before the day begins. Spend 10 minutes brainstorming ways you’d like to invest in your relationships. Send a note of appreciation to a friend. Call a family member just to chat. Do one of your significant other’s chores and don’t say anything about it. Be a little more vulnerable with a trusted loved one. Set up a regular time to check in on the wellbeing of your relationship with a family member or significant other. Make the investment towards your most courageous, connected and whole-hearted life.
- Brown, B. (2010). The gifts of imperfection: Let go of who you think you’re supposed to be and embrace who you are.
- The health benefits of strong relationships – Harvard Health. (n.d.). Retrieved May 13, 2016, from http://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletter_article/the-health-benefits-of-strong-relationships
- Umberson, D., & Montez, J. K. (2010). Social Relationships and Health: A Flashpoint for Health Policy. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 51(Suppl), S54–S66. http://doi.org/10.1177/0022146510383501
- Gottman, J. M., & Silver, N. (1999). The seven principles for making marriage work. New York: Crown.
- Social ties are good for your health. (n.d.). Retrieved May 14, 2016, from https://bewell.stanford.edu/features/social-ties-good-health
- Wickelgren, I. (n.d.). (2012) The Importance of Being Social. Scientific American. Retrieved May 14, 2016, from http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/streams-of-consciousness/the-importance-of-being-social/
- Ertel Karen A, Glymour Maria, Berkman Lisa F. Social Networks and Health: A Life Course Perspective Integrating Observational and Experimental Evidence. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. 2009;26:73–92.
- Berkman Lisa F, Syme Leonard. Social Networks, Host Resistance, and Mortality: A Nine-Year Follow-up Study of Alameda County Residents. American Journal of Epidemiology.1979;117:1003–1009.