Time With Friends Benefits Your Health

June 26, 2019

When someone sets out to improve their health, they usually take a familiar path: starting a healthy diet, adopting a new workout regimen, getting better sleep, drinking more water. Each of these behaviors is important, of course, but they all focus on physical health—and a growing body of research suggests that social health is just as, if not more, important to overall well-being.

One recent study published in the journal PLOS ONE, for example, found that the strength of a person’s social circle—as measured by inbound and outbound cell phone activity—was a better predictor of self-reported stress, happiness and well-being levels than fitness tracker data on physical activity, heart rate and sleep.

That finding suggests that the “quantified self” portrayed by endless amounts of health data doesn’t tell the whole story, says study co-author Nitesh Chawla, a professor of computer science and engineering at the University of Notre Dame.

“There’s also a qualified self, which is who I am, what are my activities, my social network, and all of these aspects that are not reflected in any of these measurements,” Chawla says. “My lifestyle, my enjoyment, my social network—all of those are strong determinants of my well-being.”

Chawla’s theory is supported by plenty of prior research. Studies have shown that social support—whether it comes from friends, family members or a spouse—is strongly associated with better mental and physical health. A robust social life, these studies suggest, can lower stress levels; improve mood; encourage positive health behaviors and discourage damaging ones; boost cardiovascular health; improve illness recovery rates; and aid virtually everything in between. Research has even shown that a social component can boost the effects of already-healthy behaviors such as exercise.

Social isolation, meanwhile, is linked to higher rates of chronic diseases and mental health conditions, and may even catalyze cellular-level changes that promote chronic inflammation and suppress immunity. The detrimental health effects of loneliness have been likened to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. It’s a significant problem, especially since loneliness is emerging as a public health epidemic in the U.S. According to recent surveys, almost half of Americans, including large numbers of the country’s youngest and oldest adults, are lonely.

A recent study conducted by health insurer Cigna and published in the American Journal of Health Promotion set out to determine what’s driving those high rates of loneliness. Unsurprisingly, it found that social media, when used so much that it infringes on face-to-face quality time, was tied to greater loneliness, while having meaningful in-person interactions, reporting high levels of social support and being in a committed relationship were associated with less loneliness.

Gender and income didn’t seem to have a strong effect, but loneliness tended to decrease with age, perhaps because of the wisdom and perspective afforded by years of life lived, says Dr. Stuart Lustig, one of the report’s authors and Cigna’s national medical executive for behavioral health.

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