Why People Need People -- For Better Health
People love people. People need people. Family and friends help us celebrate the good times. They support us when life feels hard. Dr. Brene Brown, who studies the traits that make us human, says it’s key for us to feel connected to others. And when we don’t feel closely connected, it can harm our health.
A growing number of studies support these ideas. Strong social connections are linked to our well being and longer life. Being lonely and isolated from others is linked to poorer health.
Among the downsides of a lonely life:
Our odds of dying early are higher -- maybe even higher than from being obese.
We may lose mobility and be less able to complete daily tasks.
On the other hand, here are some of the benefits of a good social life:
A strong social network helps our long-term survival as much as quitting a 15-cigarette-a-day smoking habit.
Older adults who describe their relationships as satisfying have a lower risk of developing dementia.
Social support boosts the immune system. This helps us recover from illness faster and lowers our disease risk.
If you feel lonely, you’re far from alone. More than one in three adults over 45 in the U.S. are lonely, says AARP. This may not surprise you, since older people are more likely to lose friends and family or develop poor health that makes it hard to socialize.
But a 2018 survey revealed that the loneliest age group is Generation Z (ages 18-22). They also claimed worse health than older age groups. A possible reason: social media. Research shows that heavy use of social media is linked with stronger feelings of social isolation. It’s unclear if users turn to social media because they feel alone, if heavy use increases feelings of loneliness, or both.
What makes loneliness so damaging to our physical and psychological health -- at any age?
Social pain is physical pain
Think about how you feel when you are rejected. It’s painful. We even talk about the “sting” of rejection or the “ache” of our hearts. Social rejection and physical pain activate the same networks in our brain. This is one of the reasons why depression can be physically painful. It’s also why Tylenol can reduce the pain of social loss.
Our brains are designed to connect
Our brains are wired to think socially. (Consider your own ability to “read” the emotions or intentions of others, for example.) Social thinking is a reflex, so we do it automatically. Humans have the largest brains relative to body size compared to other animals, likely due to the fact that human beings have large social groups. So our brains have evolved to help us socialize. When this biological need isn’t filled, we suffer.
Feelings also affect how the body functions
Our minds and our bodies affect each other in direct ways, too. Loneliness has been linked to the stress response and higher inflammation in the body. Inflammation is a process that can harm organs over time leading to chronic diseases such as those mentioned above. So friendships actually protect health.
Being Lonely vs. Being Alone
Anyone can feel connected to others and it’s this feeling we want to pay attention to. We all know what it’s like to feel lonely in a room full of friends. Or to feel totally connected with strangers in a group we care about or even to be at home alone enjoying our time in a chat room. What matters less is how wide our friend group is or whether we’re shy or outgoing. What matters more is experiencing the positive emotions that come with feeling connected to others. That is, we don’t feel lonely.
Now that you know how important other people are to your physical and emotional health, what steps are you ready to take?
Ask a friend or family member to be your partner in health. You could cook healthy meals together each week. Or maybe a friend could meet you at the gym or for a walk on a regular basis. This person is your “accountability buddy” and you get to be theirs as well. You can share the healthy lifestyle changes you’re both making, keep yourselves on track, and get social benefits. Win, win, win!
Volunteer for a cause you care about. Donating your time to others can bring as much joy as receiving (or more)! Research shows that volunteering at least once a week raises happiness so much it’s like giving yourself a huge raise in salary.
Prioritize spending time with friends and family. Plan ahead when you can. This makes it easier to manage healthy foods and drinks. Experiment with potluck meals so you can bring a healthy plant-based option. As long as the dish is tasty, it will be a hit!
Adopt a dog. You will have a friend who will give you lots of love and can be a steady walking partner!
Join a club that interests you. Maybe it’s a book club, a jazz club, a collectors club, a card-playing or mah jong club. Maybe it’s a spiritual community. Look for a group that gives you a chance to meet and regularly see like-minded people.
Use social media to help you find a local or online group of people who also focus on whole food plant-based nutrition. This can be very helpful and fun, particularly if you’re just starting to learn about plant-based eating. If you’re a Better participant, consider joining the Better Facebook community! Note: While helpful, social media on its own may not provide the close connections that are most linked with health.
Work to make a current relationship stronger. Is there a relative, friend, or acquaintance you would enjoy spending more time with? How could they support your health journey? How can you support theirs?
If you would like to widen your social circle, pick one or two groups that match your values and interests. Then give one a try. Think of this as an experiment. Be open and curious. Allow time for friendships to develop. If the first idea isn’t a good fit, look elsewhere and keep trying! There are many options out there. It will be well worth the effort when you find what works for you.