By nature, humans are social beings. Our inherent need for interpersonal connection is encoded in our neurobiologic framework. According to Matthew Lieberman, author of “Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect”, even at rest our brains activate a social cognition network that promotes understanding and empathy for others. Interactions with friends, family, community members, and even strangers can provide individuals with a sense of connectedness. Lieberman further explains that investing in the welfare of others through shared social connection may generate more happiness than individual self-interest.
Emma Seppala, director of Stanford’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE), identifies social connection as an integral aspect of physical health as well as mental and emotional well-being. Seppala specifies that a large number of social relationships does not necessarily equate to a stronger sense of closeness and belonging, emphasizing the importance of relationship quality over quantity. Mental Health America breaks down the essence of meaningful social interactions into the following building blocks: concrete help, emotional support, perspective, advice, and validation. By sharing these experiences with others, individuals can create mutually fulfilling connections that have been linked to profound health benefits.
The benefits of maintaining strong social relationships extend from chronic disease prevention to increased longevity. Evidence has demonstrated that social connection can help people maintain a healthy body mass index, manage blood sugar, improve cancer survival, decrease depressive symptoms, and improve overall mental health. One study, which analyzed data from over 300,000 individuals, found that stronger relationships increased likelihood of survival by 50%. The risk of death due to lack of social connection was approximately equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day and consuming excessive alcohol. Furthermore, weak social relationships posed an even higher risk of death than physical inactivity and obesity.
Stanford’s CCARE summarizes three ways research has shown an internal sense of connection can be nurtured and built:
Give, share, support and perform acts of service and kindness for others. Compassion and volunteering have significant health benefits.
Take care of oneself: implement stress-reducing behaviors. Stress is linked to high self-focus and therefore a lower sense of connection.
Ask for help: reach out to friends, family, community, or health practitioners. People are willing to help us but if we don’t ask, they assume we don’t need help.
Strong social connections have the power to improve subjective well-being, encourage healthy behaviors, and optimize longevity. By providing holistic patient-centered care rather than focusing solely on a discrete set of symptoms in a medical chart, health practitioners can form meaningful connections with patients. Through this connection, lifestyle medicine practitioners can directly foster health-promoting behaviors and recommend methods for maintaining a strong social support network.