Whenever disaster strikes in my life (even the garden-variety type), my instinct isn’t to hide out or isolate — it’s always to text, call, or FaceTime my inner circle. Work stress and money worries go to my husband. Heartbreak and losses go to my close group of single friends. During pangs of loneliness, I reach out to my church family. And pretty much everything else? I turn to sister. But sometimes even social connections with strangers will do. Rarely do I stew on a stressful situation entirely alone, and for good reason: When I reach out to people, I feel better instantly.
Study after study has shown the health benefits of accessing social support. “For humans, social connections are as essential as food and water,” says Johns Hopkins psychiatrist Margaret Chisolm, MD, author of From Survive to Thrive: Living Your Best Life with Mental Illness. “They are needed to sustain our lives and to perpetuate the species.” She cites the discovery of a healed thighbone found in a 15,000-year-old site as evidence of our long history of cooperation and caring: Surviving a broken femur requires dependence on someone else for food and drink, shelter, and physical protection for many weeks. That level of TLC suggests that humans moved past a “survival of the fittest” mentality, and instead evolved to prioritize the survival of the group.
The Perks of Close Relationships
In modern times, the far-ranging influence of social connections goes well beyond nursing us through broken bones. “Science shows increased connection leads to longer and more fulfilling lives,” says Angeleena May, LMHC, executive director for AMFM Healthcare, a mental and behavioral health treatment center in Southern California.
In fact, people with strong social relationships have a 50 percent increased likelihood of longevity than those with weaker social relationships, according to a landmark 2010 study at Brigham Young University that analyzed 148 different studies (including 308,849 people). It determined the influence of social relationships on the risk of death is comparable to that of negative risk factors, such as smoking and alcohol consumption, and even exceeds the risk posed by physical inactivity and obesity. Another study — this one conducted at Harvard and which followed people for nearly 80 years — found that the state of people’s relationships has a profound impact on both their happiness and health. The data showed that people’s satisfaction with their relationships at age 50 was actually a better predictor of physical health than their cholesterol levels were.
Why does social interaction have such a strong impact on life expectancy? Research from the University of California, Los Angeles, shows that social contact boosts your immune system, whereas exclusion or isolation can increase inflammation and suppress immunity. Meanwhile, researchers from the Massachusetts General Hospital found that social connection is the strongest protective factor against depression.
“Social interaction, particularly in-person interaction and connection, can decrease stress, loneliness, and depression,” says May. “Being connected to others provides purpose and belonging, allowing for gratitude when contributing in a meaningful way to others’ lives. When we interact with others, expressing emotions to others, our brains release dopamine and endorphins, improving mood and emotional regulation.”
And your body can register these calming effects rather quickly. “A single, 20-second hug has been shown to lead to a moderate decline in cortisol within minutes, though it does return to pre-hug levels after 40 minutes,” says Dr. Chisolm. “Longer social interactions have been shown to lead to more significant differences in cortisol levels within 15 to 30 minutes.”
Ways to Harness the Benefits
“We’re ‘wired’ to have various types of relationships, both long-term and fleeting,” says Chisolm. “What makes all of our social connections meaningful is their power to different degrees, to influence our feelings, thoughts, and behaviors (hopefully for good rather than evil ends) so as to improve our happiness and life satisfaction, physical and mental health, character, and virtues — all important components to a flourishing life.”
And think outside your circle of confidants. One study from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, that was focused on examining the value of different types of relationships found that even social interactions with more peripheral members of your social network (i.e., acquaintances) still contribute to your well-being. “I think all human relationships have the capacity to hold significant meaning for us,” says Shani Silver, author of A Single Revolution and host of A Single Serving Podcast. “Who are we to determine for everyone else what counts as family, or why a platonic friendship can’t be just as vital to someone’s life as a romantic one?”
Just knowing you’ve got options can bring you peace of mind. “Simply being prepared with a plan can help alleviate anticipatory anxiety, which decreases stress,” says Dr. Chisolm. “A plan can be scripting a cognitive response to feelings such as ‘This anxiety is just a feeling, it will pass.’ Or a behavioral response, which can absolutely involve reaching out to others: ‘I’ll call a friend if I feel like I’m getting stressed.’” Activating that plan early on in the stress response can also help mitigate the amplitude of the stress.
Leverage Virtual Social Support
One of the major highlights to come out of the research done on mental well-being during quarantine is that online socializing does, indeed, count toward your social feel-good quota. One study from UCLA conducted during the COVID-19 pandemic found that, when in-person interactions are limited, virtually interacting with a greater number of people was associated with better mental health, as demonstrated by decreased feelings of loneliness and increased perceptions of social support.
Of course, it’s not perfect. We usually employ all five senses during our in-person interactions, but online, we’re limited to sight and sound. “Thus, those who find connection primarily through digital interaction report a higher rate of loneliness,” says May. Physical touch, for example, increases connectivity and deepens bonds with those around us, she says, and it’s hard to get that through a screen.
What we do know so far is that interactions including voice lead to stronger social connection compared to those without, according to one study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology. To get the biggest benefit, rather than texting, pick up the phone, says May. “Any communication with substantial context or regarding one’s feelings should be done verbally, preferably video if in-person is not an option,” she says. “When having more emotional or sincere conversations, facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice can greatly influence how one perceives the message.” But in a pinch, texting is better than nothing: “Using text, emojis, and quick messages can be a way to show you are thinking of one another,” she says.
How Our Pets Help Us
As if you needed more reasons to love your Labrador retriever or tabby cat: Interacting with animals has been shown to decrease levels of cortisol and lower blood pressure, according to the National Institutes of Health. Other research published in the journal BMC Public Health has found that animals can reduce loneliness, increase feelings of social support, and boost your mood. “Petting an animal results in increased dopamine and decreased cortisol levels within minutes, which leads to decreased anxiety and feelings of stress, and increased feelings of peace and calm,” says Dr. Chisolm. “They’re not called emotional support animals for nothing!” Playing with them also allows for a mental break that has the bonus of boosting your physical activity.
What’s more, a Tufts University study found that people with a strong attachment to a pet feel more connected in their human relationships and communities. Meanwhile, other research at the University of Western Australia determined that dog owners have an easier time making friends — talk about a win-win.
A version of this article appeared in our partner magazine, How To Beat Stress, in 2022.